As the holidays approached this year, many interior alaskans were holding their breath. The storm form last Christmas was still fresh in their minds, when it dumped a foot of snow and then rained for a day, turning everything to ice. More than 14,000 members lost power and utility crews worked for days to get the lights back on.
There was no Christmas blizzard this year. Yet December brought a series of smaller storms that covered Fairbanks and the surrounding hillsides in a foot of heavy snow. A couple of weeks before the new year, the trees became so loaded with snow that they started leaning into power lines, triggering a series of outages that affected more than 7,000 homes. When the temperatures plunged soon after, hundreds of homes were still without power.
“It’s currently 26 below zero, and our crews have spent the night on outage management,” says John Burns, CEO of Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA).
In a subarctic climate, 350 miles from the next major city, having access to reliable power is critical. Since 1946, GVEA has provided power to the region’s homes and businesses to fuel the growing community. Today, it serves a 6000-square-mile area that includes hospitals, mines and four critical military bases. It also includes rugged terrain that crosses major mountain ranges and drainages. Managing an electric grid in this environment is challenging and expensive, and GVEA members have some of the highest–and most volatile–energy costs in the nation. From June 2020 to June 2022, the fuel and purchased power cost per kilowatt hour nearly doubled, hitting residents and businesses hard.
“If your cost of power changes on a quarterly basis, goes up, goes down, how do you plan? How do you have a business profile you can plan for?” John says.
That’s why GVEA is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on the Department of Energy’s Clean Energy to Communities program to figure out ways to make its power system cleaner and more reliable for Alaskans.
“GVEA is an innovative utility with incredible staff. This project was designed to support GVEA in that innovation as they move toward the future of more affordable, resilient electricity in Interior Alaska,” says Sherry Stout, one of the NREL researchers who worked on the project.
Transitioning to a New Generation Profile
After nearly 2 years of research and modeling by GVEA staff and consultants, the board of directors adopted a strategic generation plan in June 2022 to overhaul GVEA’s generation with the goal of ultimately lowering costs for members. That’s when they reached out to NREL for additional assistance. First, the GVEA team provided a detailed analysis of its generation portfolio to NREL. GVEA currently generates power from 4 fuel oil plants and 2 coal plants. Additionally, the utility is owner of the Eva Creek Wind Farm in Ferry, a solar farm in Fairbanks and part owner of Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Project outside Homer. Still, fossil fuels make up more than 90% of generation, which is not only expensive but also carbon-intensive.
Once they had an intricate picture of the grid, including its strengths and weaknesses, planners looked at ways to change it. But how do you do that without raising power costs or impacting grid stability?
NREL modelers created five scenarios that would help the utility be more resilient and cost-effective. Central to the plan was replacing unreliable, costly generation with 3 sources: new wind generation, new energy storage and importing additional power from Southcentral Alaska.
NREL modelers assisted in determining the optimal size of a potential wind project to add more wind power to the grid without affecting its performance. Because wind is such an intermittent resource, providing power only when the wind is blowing, they needed a way to balance the resource over time.
The answer was energy storage. GVEA has long used batteries to stabilize the grid. When the utility installed its current system in 2003, it was the largest battery in the world–able to provide 25 MW for fifteen minutes. But today, at 20 years old, it needs to be upgraded and designed to handle more renewables.
Finally, GVEA is working with the state and other utilities to upgrade transmission lines that run 700 miles across Alaska in order to bring more energy from the Bradley Lake Project and Southcentral Alaska, which has access to wind, hydro and natural gas.
“It is literally a 700-mile extension cord that is essentially third world. Upgrading the transmission system will allow additional integration of renewables, it will allow diversification and it will allow redundancy and resiliency,” John says.
The partnership gives GVEA access to the latest and greatest technologies emerging from national labs and advanced tools like grid modeling so the utility can take the next step toward modernizing its grid. With more backup storage and an integrated transmission system, the grid will be better equipped for the Alaska elements. So instead of worrying about a snowstorm, we can go outside and enjoy it.