A recent vacation took me to Seward, Alaska, a fishing and tourist town on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage. Pulling into this windy coastal town in a rental car, I was distracted by a lonely 121 ft tall, 100 kW wind turbine standing idle in a lot in the city’s commercial park; an area otherwise dominated by garages housing dilapidated boats and men wielding belt sanders.
I wasn’t in the driver’s seat, so we survived the sighting. But I was driven to find answers. Why just one? And why is it not spinning?
After tracking down answers the old fashioned way (on foot and by asking locals instead of Google), I was able to glean that the turbine was a collaboration between AVTEC, an Alaksan vocational college, and Northern Power Systems (link to I3 Platform content requires subscription), a wind turbine manufacturer and solutions company that happens to be based in my home state of Vermont. AVTEC is launching a new program of study for up and coming wind power technicians and erected the turbine in late 2010 both to supply power for three out of four of its Seward-based buildings and to provide an onsite case study in turbine and power generation management.
Upon my return to the real world, I uncovered some more interesting information. In Alaska it is common for cities and towns to operate electrical transmission and distribution grids independent of one another because of their remoteness (keep in mind that many communities are still only reachable by small aircraft). This is unlike the lower 48, where large utilities are often banded together under a common grid operator which coordinates supply with load. I’ll be curious to see whether Alaska’s patchwork of smaller grids is a helper or hindrance to wider adoption of net metering and integration of intermittent renewables. The state utility regulator has instituted a plan for net metering, which would allow for the integration of distributed generation (DG) on the grid, but the regulator does not have direct authority over all the state’s utilities. Seward Electric is one such utility, and does not yet allow wind turbines to connect to its grid.
So the Northern Power 100 turbine on AVTEC’s lot sits idle in a stiff breeze. The summer term starts August 8th, however, so perhaps a new crop of wind power technicians-in-training will flip the switch in just over a month.
Troy Ault is a research analyst at Cleantech Group.
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