An elegant proposal to transform Alaska’s Rail-Belt to 100% renewable energy.
Article and Photos by Bjørn Olson
Just after sunrise, the icy hoar frost clinging to the willow branches in the Tanana River Valley begin to shudder. At first, the wind comes in a light zephyr. Branches lazily sway; a few ice crystals lose hold and fall from their perch, catching the rosy dawn light, making the morning air sparkle. Within an hour’s time, a powerful gale is blowing. The air fills with fine, crystalline powder and snowdrifts form on the leeward side of every bump and rise. The wind will not stop for weeks. All the critters in the valley will forget that there was ever a time when the world didn’t scream and hurt.
Wind is an Alaskan natural resource that, for the most part, we let slip through our fingers. Daily, billions of kilowatts worth of energy whoosh and rush through our valleys, down our fjords and off our mountain peaks—untapped, and unrealized.
What if we could harness that power? What if every Alaskan home had so much cheap energy that we could heat our homes with electricity, charge our cars and trucks with electricity, light our streets, power our schools, public buildings, and illuminate brilliant minds set on making Alaska a better place for future generations? What if our power came from wind that doesn’t become more or less expensive because of the whimsy of distant market forces? Cheap, consistent, reliable wind is what Alaska has in abundance. What if we tapped into it?
Tucked into a hill, up the Eagle River Valley, in an unfinished, three story home, a 66 year old retired engineer, and life-long Alaskan, has developed a plan to save Alaska, fight climate change, and solve our energy problems—for the next several hundred years. For months, Kerry Williams has sat in front of his computer screen crunching numbers, using his sophisticated CAD software, creating Google Earth maps, and researching a bold and visionary concept. For months, Kerry has been slapping his forehead. His idea, on the face of it, is so simple it hurts.
“I’m always assigning myself difficult but entertaining problems to solve in my spare time, as a hobby.” Kerry says. “When I retired fifteen years ago, I decided that the problem that most needed solving was how to get Alaska’s post-oil economy stabilized.” No small task. But for someone with 4 standard deviations above the normal IQ and an active member of several international high IQ organizations, for Kerry, this is just another day in the life; another challenge to be met.
“My proposed Eklutna Complex is nothing more than a gigantic rechargeable battery.”
Alaska is rife with alternative energy potential—wind, solar, geo-thermal, tidal, and biomass are all here, in abundance. However, one challenge to integrating renewable energy into the grid is what to do about the inherent variability of renewables? What do you do when the wind stops and the clouds obscure the sun? How do you store that energy in times of abundance? A battery. You need a really big battery, and this is where Kerry’s idea picks up. This is where Kerry believes he has found a solution so simple it is elegant.
“I was recently looking closely at the possibility of developing and exporting some very concentrated renewable energy resources in central and northern Alaska.” Kerry tells me. “Variable Renewable Energy (VRE) requires some method of evening out the energy for transmission and integration into the grid. There are three methods of doing that,” he says.
“The original conventional method is to overbuild the generation, and shut off or dump excess power. Even conventional energy resources don’t have 100% availability (called the capacity factor), which is why excess generation capacity is always required,” he says. “Another method of leveling the power output of variable resources, such as wind, is to link together widely separated sources. That way, when the wind stops blowing at one wind farm, the others keep feeding the grid. The wind doesn’t stop blowing everywhere at once.”
A team of dedicated alternative energy experts—including Kerry and his partner Ceal Smith— have been studying this issue for the last several years and have come up with the Alaskan Roadmap to 100% renewable energy for the entire state. For Alaska’s rail-belt, widely separated sources of alternative energy, on the face of it, should not be a problem. Wind farms on Fire Island and in the Tanana River Valley, Cook Inlet tidal, Kenai Peninsula solar, etc., etc. However, it is the final method of leveling the Variable Renewable Energy that has most captured Kerry.
“The third method is to provide energy storage for VRE. Batteries are the first solution, but molten salts and other methods are being developed and deployed now also. Most storage solutions are quite expensive when trying to level the thousands of megawatts of output I’ve been looking at balancing,” he says. “Researching the issue, I found a good Levelized Cost of Storage analysis, which identified pumped hydro as the cheapest large-scale storage method. I was modeling potential pumped hydro sites nearer the most concentrated potential natural energy resources when an article about Eklutna’s salmon restoration clicked and it occurred to me that pumped hydro could fix the issue [salmon restoration] and at the same time lower our electric bills.”
Besides having plentiful alternative energy potential, Alaska has other unique assets: gobs of freshwater and high elevation mountains. “My proposed Eklutna Complex is nothing more than a gigantic rechargeable battery. It takes in variable randomly generated energy, and dispenses energy to match demand. In terms of MWh capacity,” Kerry says, “the second phase would make it the largest in the world. In terms of total output capacity, a fourth phase could bring it to the largest capacity in the world also, all without harm to Eklutna Lake’s elevation or it’s renewed salmon run or it’s recreational values.”
Sounds too good to be true? How does it work?
This plan proposes to build a 6000 acre-feet freshwater reservoir below East Twin Peak, on the south bank of the Knik River. The massive Knik Glacier and its river is capable of providing large volumes of water and because of the glaciers massive size and geographical location, it is not in danger of going extinct because of global warming anytime soon.
The next thing to focus our most talented engineering minds on is the study of Kerry’s proposed high elevation impounds, e.g. dams, above Eklutna Lake and then building them. Kerry has identified five ideal, high elevation valleys, which are perfect locations for enough high altitude water energy storage to light, heat, and drive the entire rail-belt for months. By pumping water up to these reservoirs, through tunnels in the mountains, when there is surplus energy, this project would be an energy savings account—a literal rainy day fund.
Talking with Kerry, several things jump out to me. As a fellow life-long Alaskan, I have come to take it for granted that Alaskans are quite often modern day Renaissance women and men—handy and capable in numerous and often widely divergent skill-sets. The ability to swap a transmission out of a Ford F-150, design and build a home, develop a website, weld a bicycle frame back together, hunt, fish, and grow a garden, and play Bach on a classical guitar, for example, is just who we are. We also do not know how to take no for an answer. When there is a problem in front of us, Alaskan’s get to work and fix the goddamn thing—whatever it is.
Throughout his working years, Kerry has accumulated a robust construction background including large projects, like TAPS, some oil field, flood control projects, harbors, energy project research, design and consulting in solar, wind, electric transportation, and geothermal projects and has been Chief engineer on an electric vehicle project.
But something unique about Alaskans is that when we are asked, “What do you do?” we often don’t highlight how we make money. What we do is what inspires us and how we want others to think of us. For Kerry, many years of hiking, biking, skiing, hang-gliding, photographing, paragliding, fishing, and many other activities within Chugach State Park have given him a great appreciation for the place, a sense of identity and a strong desire to care for and enhance the natural attributes to the best of his ability. Kerry currently lives within walking distance of the Park and has a deep reverence for the natural environment of his backyard and the state as a whole. Kerry is an environmentalist.
In 2009, then Governor, Sarah Palin, understood the threat climate change was having on our state. Alaska is warming twice as fast of the rest of the nation and four times faster in winter because our civilization produces an additional 40 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year. This increase in greenhouse gases is also disproportionately acidifying our seas. Roughly 30% of those greenhouse gases come from our global energy demands—coal, oil and natural gas power plants. Governor Palin set a mandate that Alaska would, by 2025, provide half of its energy needs from renewables. If we get to work, Kerry’s plan could shatter this goal.
When I ask him what comes next, he says, “I haven’t a clue. But I hope if it has legs that I will at least get to sit on the most appropriate commission(s) or engineering and design team(s) to help guide it. The legislature needs to act to enable the project.”
It is clear, after spending time with Kerry, asking lots of questions, looking at his Google Earth mock-up, and trying to stump him with my inquiries, that it is time for his project to leave the nest. What this proposal needs now is an army of smart people to rip it apart, find the flaws, improve on it—what this project needs now is peer review and investment.
What would rate payers pay per kilowatt-hour, I asked him? Without flinching, he has an answer and I realize, again, I am in the presence of someone way, way smarter than me. “After we’re at 100%” he has calculated, “and have paid off the bonds, it should drop to around $0.08 kWh, except for homeowners and businesses who cover their roofs with solar panels. They would pay considerably less, or even profit if they generate more than they use.” Right now, MEA customers pay about $0.20 kWh, and Golden Valley members pay $0.21.
“I’ve already talked with a few of the stakeholders whom I would expect to have the most relevant expertise and pointed criticisms, and so far they’ve been encouraging,” he tells me. “Rick Sinnot, whose study and article about Eklutna Salmon was the trigger; Marc Lamoreaux, Eklutna Village environmental director; Debra Lnne, Tanana Chief Conference natural resources director—about their potential wind resources to ‘charge’ the Eklutna Complex—and her Tanana Chiefs Conference colleague who owns a lease on the potential lease site; also, Ed Zapel, Senior Hydraulic Engineer for HDR, who understood my project instantly. They all seemed quite interested. I still need to talk with AEA personnel and CIRI wind personnel,” he tells me.
As far as I know, there has never been a study within Alaska, which looks at the potential for large, man-made reservoirs to produce methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In temperate regions, where reservoirs are built in valleys, which contain a lot of biomass, methane is produced. Whether or not man-made, large volume water impounds within Alaska would produce this greenhouse gas is yet to be seen. But Kerry’s proposal has almost zero chance for methane production; the reservoirs are all within recently glaciated, high alpine zone, with low biomass.
Another massive issue typically associated with large hydro projects is their potential devastating impacts on salmon and other fish species. In this instance it will be, in matter of fact, just the opposite. “It was the issue which started my investigation into turning Eklutna hydro into a pumped hydro energy storage complex,” Kerry tells me. “Because excessive water from Eklutna Lake is being used for hydroelectric power, the lake has not naturally drained for years. (That, and an older dam lower on Eklutna River, which was recently removed.) Doing the first stage of a conversion—swapping the turbine generators for reversible flow turbine/pumps—would enable us to keep Eklutna Lake filled and allow salmon to return. It would enhance the entire State Park by returning that lake to it’s historical level, and would lower our utility rates by about a penny per kWh instantly by replacing the very expensive gas fueled peaker plant operations. Excessive peaker plant operation is the cited reason for denying expanded wind farm and solar energy for rail-belt utilities.”
Environmentalists are often called C.A.V.E. people—Citizens Against Virtually Everything. My retort to that is, “Show me a project that works with the natural world rather than despoils it for short-term profit.” This is a mega-project that all Alaskans, regardless of political affiliation, can get behind.
For as long as I can remember, we have been offered a phony dichotomy: we can choose—the thinking goes—between either a healthy environment,or jobs and a robust economy. This notion is poppycock!
Kerry’s proposal would, in his words, “…provide two to four times as much as we need to power everything from Fairbanks or Tanana, Anchorage, to Homer.” This mega-project would provide countless construction jobs and long-term maintenance jobs. Furthermore, Alaska would become an incredibly attractive place for business to invest. Imagine Internet companies buying our cheap renewable energy and using glacier air to cool their massive servers. But I digress.
It is time to come together as Alaskans to fight climate change, defend our way of life and embolden the industries of the future. Kerry Williams and his pumped hydro project is a part of that future and, like the wild of Alaska, it is calling us to action.
For more information visit: AlaskansKnowClimateChange.Com