Moving water could replace diesel energy in remote communities

November 16, 2021

By Jane Palmer

In remote regions of Alaska, many communities aren’t connected to a regional electrical grid, forcing them to rely on importing diesel fuel to meet their energy needs. But the harsh elements can lead to interruptions in their fuel supply, and diesel prices can be excessively high.

“Alaska has got some wild weather,” said Shiloh Elliott, a researcher at Idaho National Laboratory. “If the fuel is really late because of a storm, your diesel power plant is not going to run.”

To address this issue, a collaborative project between INL researchers, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), and XENDEE Corporation is looking at the feasibility of enabling these microgrids to integrate power from tidal or wave energy sources along with other renewables and energy storage. The study will also use an innovative commercial tool suite for rapidly assessing how the combination of renewable energy sources could meet local energy needs via the microgrid.

“The project will demonstrate a new approach that is more efficient and scalable at identifying mixtures of tidal and other renewable generation resources to reduce diesel fuel consumption in remote community microgrids,” said Elliott, who is leading the lab’s involvement in the project.

Diesel downsides

Wild seas and windy weather can delay the delivery of diesel to isolated communities, many of which receive their diesel shipments by barge. A shorter delay can mean the community has to draw on stored reserves; a longer one can mean that power in the region shuts down completely.

Reliance on diesel also directly ties the cost to generate power to the price of oil, which is often significantly higher in Alaska than the national average. Diesel fuel also contributes to greenhouse gas warming, and in the long-term, Alaska would ideally phase down use of the fuel. “As we trend toward a lower carbon society, we necessarily will be reducing our dependency on fossil fuels,” Elliott said.

Fortunately, the very elements that make transporting fuel to remote regions in Alaska so challenging could be the source of a solution. Previous research conducted by the Alaska Energy Authority, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and ACEP has identified areas in southern Alaska where waves and tidal forces could provide alternative sources of energy. ACEP houses the Alaska Hydrokinetic Energy Research Center.

An engineering puzzle

Working with ACEP and drawing on this research, INL scientists are collecting data to identify communities that are candidates for marine energy powered energy integration. The analysis is considering a range of factors including the energy sources in each region, the economic considerations of the community and the current reliance on diesel fuel. “It is like a big, nerdy engineering puzzle,” Elliott said.

After the INL team passes this information to XENDEE Corporation, the company will perform an assessment of possible microgrid integration methods and strategies that could be used with the tidal and wave energy sources. Ultimately, XENDEE and ACEP will create a modeling platform and development plan for microgrids powered by marine hydrokinetic energy, which could serve these remote communities.

A model for the future

The study will also inform a decision support framework that will allow for the rapid assessment of a community’s potential to use the combination of marine energy and microgrids to serve their energy needs.

“We are very thankful for the opportunity to add the concept of marine hydrokinetic energy to the XENDEE platform and enable remote communities with complete microgrid analyses and studies,” said Michael Stadler, co-founder and chief technology officer of XENDEE Corporation.

In the future, the team plans to extend its analysis to identify Alaskan communities that rely heavily on diesel fuel for power generation and have little resilience if their fuel supply is interrupted for a period of time. Ultimately, the collaborators want to develop pilot studies using the XENDEE microgrid tool suite to assess the best energy resource mix for a particular location. INL’s Digital Real-Time Simulator, which is collocated with INL’s Microgrid Test Bed, would be used to validate the proposed microgrid structure before building it in the real world.

The project also aims to address energy justice issues – the lack of reliable access to affordable energy – that plague many remote Alaskan communities. “In Alaska, and even some places in the lower 48, there are communities that don’t have access to clean energy infrastructure,” Elliott said.

The project’s goals to assess the potential for using renewable energy sourced microgrids and develop a flexible and scalable decision support framework are steps toward tackling this lack of energy resources. The collaborative effort will help increase the energy independence and resilience of remote communities in the United States.


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About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted November 16, 2021

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