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September 1, 2015

Alaska increases wind power capacity in utility-scale and distributed-scale projects

graph of Alaskan wind potential and electricity infrastructure, as explained in the article text
Source: Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Energy Mapping System

Republished September 2, 2015, 8:30. A previous version stated that Eva Creek was the first wind project connected to the Railbelt. It was the second. The Delta wind farm in Delta Junction preceded it by two years.

Although wind power provided less than 3% of Alaska's electric power generation in 2014, Alaska's wind power capacity has increased 20-fold between 2007 and 2014, growing from 3 megawatts (MW) to 60 MW. This increase is notable in light of the challenges of installing and connecting large wind generators, specifically the high costs of expanding electricity transmission infrastructure in the least densely populated state. Alaska's nascent wind industry has sited utility-scale turbines along the Railbelt, the only large-scale transmission system in the state, and at distributed scale to supply electricity in remote or rural areas without grid access.

graph of annual wind capacity additions in Alaska, as explained in the article text
Source: Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electricity Data Browser

Net wind electricity generation in Alaska has increased every year since 2012 as utilities and independent power producers diversify their electricity portfolio by adding wind projects, which are seen as an alternative to petroleum (often diesel) generators. At the same time, relatively mild winters in Alaska have contributed to declines in electricity generated from petroleum, coal, and natural gas.

graph of Alaskan net electricity generation by fuel, as explained in the article text
Source: Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electricity Data Browser

The state's largest wind project, Eva Creek, was commissioned at the end of 2012 with a capacity of 24 MW. Eva Creek is connected to the Railbelt, the transmission system that stretches from Fairbanks, through Anchorage, and into the Kenai Peninsula, and provides electricity to the two-thirds of the state's population. The rest of Alaska's population, including the capital city of Juneau, draws electricity from consumer-owned cooperatives that maintain isolated micro-grids in areas throughout the rest of the state.

The cost of building transmission lines in Alaska ranges from $200,000 per mile to $2 million per mile because of rough terrain, icy conditions, melting permafrost, and a lack of roads to rural and remote communities. In addition, the areas with the best wind potential in Alaska are concentrated along remote stretches of coastline, including along the Aleutian Islands, and offshore, while most of the interior's onshore wind potential is characterized as having fair, low, or poor wind speed conditions.

Remote and rural communities in Alaska often rely on local diesel generators to produce electricity. The high costs associated with petroleum-fired electricity generation contribute to Alaska's high retail electricity rates, which in 2013 were second only to Hawaii. The computed average retail electricity rates exclude roughly one-third of Alaska's population that is not connected to the grid, and likely underestimates the prices paid by all end users. Often the cost of expanding the transmission network to a wider customer base or of transferring Alaska's coastal wind resources to the grid is greater than the cost of relying on petroleum-fired electricity generation.

In some smaller communities that currently lack access to any broader utility grid, distributed wind projects have proven viable. For example, Alaska's first large-scale distributed wind turbines were commissioned in 2009 on Kodiak, an island that relies on an independent grid. After doubling the number of wind turbines and adding 3 MW of energy storage in 2012, the Kodiak Electric Association's 4,000 customers now derive 18% of their electricity from community-scale, distributed wind power and more than 80% from hydroelectricity. The fraction of the city's electricity from petroleum-fired generators has dropped from 20% before 2009 to 0.4% most recently in 2014.

Principal contributors: Cara Marcy, Justin Ho