Renewables, Microgrids, and the Locational Constraints of Powering Alaska

Five Finger Islands Light, Frederick Sound, Alaska. Photo by Gail Reitenbach

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to travel by water in Southeast Alaska—that southernmost strip of the state’s rainforest- and glacier-covered territory that looks on a map as if it should be part of Canada—you quickly gain an appreciation for modern navigational tools. Especially to a land-lubber, the maze of islands, inlets, and passages can be disorienting—especially when clouds obscure some or all physical landmarks.

But even for experienced mariners with modern electronics aboard craft of all sizes, lighthouses continue to play an important safety role in the state that still earns its motto as the “last frontier.” The Five Finger Islands Light is one such beacon. Sitting about 40 miles from the closest human habitation, the fishing town of Petersburg, Alaska, it marks a set of rocky islets at the northern end of Frederick Sound, which is famous for humpback whale sightings.

As notes, “These five islands, some of which are only visible at low tide, resemble a set of bony fingers reaching up from the icy waters to snare inattentive mariners. Situated along the Inside Passage, this cluster of natural navigational hazards was recognized early on as a prime site for a lighthouse.”

The first building on the site was erected in 1929 and is credited as being Alaska’s first lighthouse. It was destroyed by fire in 1933 and was replaced two years later by the current Art Deco structure. The rebuilt lighthouse was last staffed on August 14, 1984, when it was automated. The facility found new life when it was handed over to the Juneau Lighthouse Association in 2004 for use as a marine research site. However, the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team in Sitka, Alaska, continues to maintain the light, according to the U.S. Coast Guard blog.

Five Finger Islands Light is also available for short-term rental through Airbnb—provided you can get there by boat, float plane, or helicopter. The property description warns that the location is remote, rugged, and that “This is an active research station with scientists and volunteers working on the lighthouse. People will need to bring their own groceries and sense of adventure.” They may also have to ride out the interruption of creature comforts: “Sometimes power goes out, sometimes water shuts off.”

Speaking of power, the currently automated facility is powered by solar panels and batteries—a nanogrid, if you will. The Coast Guard blog notes that a “team is airlifted to the island quarterly to check the solar panels, batteries, lamp changers, emergency lights and daylight controls. The team occasionally spends the night at the remote lighthouse while the batteries are charging.”

Solar panels and batteries power Five Finger Islands Light in Frederick Sound, Alaska. Photo by Gail Reitenbach

Fuel, Finances, and Power

Alaska has become something of a poster child for the value and potential of microgrids. With small population centers separated by great land distances or isolated by water, the sorts of transmission projects taken for granted in the Lower 48 are difficult and expensive under the best of circumstances. But whereas the latest microgrid projects often include a renewable generation component—typically solar photovoltaic (PV)—diesel is still a mainstay for the 49th state’s microgrids.

Although I did spot a couple of small solar photovoltaic installations during my week’s travels along the Inside Passage, I saw them, here on Colt Island, through the rain. Photo by Gail Reitenbach

Though Alaska is rich in fossil fuel resources, access to refined products is scarce, making the use of natural gas, oil, and diesel for power generation a pricey proposition, especially compared to economics in the Lower 48. In the Tlingit village of Kake (population 576 in the 2010 census), for example, we were told by former district court magistrate Mike Jackson (now a totem carver and peacemaker, among other activities) that residents pay 68¢ per kilowatt-hour.  Diesel currently supplies those kilowatt-hours. There is potential to develop hydropower near Kake, but the financing is complicated thanks to hydro’s exclusion from some definitions of renewable power.

Alaskan Microgrids and the Constraints of Location

Alaskans have a history of ingenuity and working with what nature provides. Along the state’s Inside Passage, nature provides a lot of water—in all its forms. Yet, even there, water power isn’t always the obvious choice. Whereas an existing dam near Kake makes supplying at least some of the community’s electricity with hydropower a tantalizing prospect, on the small, isolated rock that supports the Five Finger Islands Light, hydropower is far less feasible than solar plus storage.

The choice and combination of renewable technologies and other microgrid components may be more important in remote locations like Alaska’s small communities and outposts than anywhere else in the U.S. Where clean and affordable power is the goal, definitions and policy-making should provide locational flexibility.

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD (@GailReit) is the former editor of POWER and current editor and publisher at Right Hand Communications LLC (@righthandcom), where she is closing out a sabbatical before jumping back into the world of power and electricity issues.