Navigant Research Blog

Alaska Leads the World in Microgrid Deployments

Peter Asmus — December 17, 2014

Many utilities view microgrids as a threat, due to intentional islanding and/or the effects of reduced customer load on long-term revenue projections.  However, a small but growing number of utilities view the microgrids they own and operate – known as utility distribution microgrids (UDMs) – as the next logical extension of their efforts to deploy smart grid technology.  As I’ve noted earlier, the developed world can learn interesting lessons in this field from the developing world.

Navigant Research’s new report, Utility Distribution Microgrids, shows that the total UDM market represents over $2.4 billion of economic activity today, with the bulk of this investment flowing into projects located in the Asia Pacific region.  As noted in an earlier report, Microgrids, North America is the overall market leader.  Yet, when it comes to utilities, both Asia Pacific and Europe are ahead in near-term deployments and related implementation revenues.  All told, under the base scenario, Navigant Research expects the UDM market to reach $5.8 billion in annual revenue by 2023, growing at a compound annual rate (CAGR) of 10.2%.

However, there’s one important exception to this market generalization: Alaska.

Across the Tundra

“Over the last decade, Alaska has quietly emerged as a global leader in the development and operation of microgrids,” declared Gwen Holdmann, director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in a recent interview.  A particular focus has been hybrid conventional-renewable-storage systems, networks that have “logged more than 2 million hours of continuous operating experience for these types of systems,” according to Holdmann.  The state boasts a portfolio of somewhere between 200 and 250 permanently islanded microgrids ranging from 30 kW – about the size of a city block – to large remote hydro systems over 100 MW in size.  These microgrids, many in operation for over 50 years, provide electric power service exclusively to isolated rural populations.  Total capacity exceeds 800 MW, the largest installed base of microgrids in the world today (though China may overtake Alaska by the end of next year).

Holdmann clearly takes pride in what Alaska has accomplished with these scattered, isolated hybrid power systems, which tap fuels as diverse as wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and tidal currents, along with diesel.  While other pundits may point to New York, California, or Hawaii as the centers of North American microgrid development, Alaska has been developing cutting-edge microgrids for quite some time.  “The State of Alaska alone has invested over $250 million in developing and integrating renewable energy projects to serve these microgrids, – far more per capita than any other state in the country,” Holdmann said.

Integration Experts

The advent of advanced technology deployment to these rural systems has forced Alaska utilities and developers to become expert in microgrid development and operation.  By far the greatest challenge was, and remains, the high-penetration integration of intermittent renewables, such as solar, wind, and hydrokinetic, with traditional diesel or natural gas fueled electric power generation.  Nevertheless, Alaskans have repeatedly achieved higher renewable penetration levels than nearly any other place in the world, under incredibly harsh conditions, including daylight hours that shrink to a couple hours a day in the winter and winds that can exceed 100 miles an hour – enough to literally tear apart many conventional wind turbines not designed to stand up to such speeds.

Many Alaskan utilities have set up voluntary goals to reach 70% or 80% renewable penetration within the next 8 to 10 years.  Kodiak Electric Association, which serves Kodiak Island on the southern coast of Alaska, reports that it has achieved 99.7% renewable energy penetration so far in 2014, using a hybrid wind/hydro/diesel/battery/flywheel microgrid.

Mainland U.S. utilities could learn a lot from the innovators up north, where the smart grid is already delivering on the promise of a more cost-effective and sustainable power grid today.

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