The native village of Igiugig (Igg-e-uh-gig) may soon have the cleanest energy in Alaska. Accessible only by air or water, this community of Yup'ik Eskimos, Aleuts, and Athabascan Indians used to depend entirely on costly, carbon-intensive shipments of diesel fuel. Now, 90% of Igiugig’s electricity for most of the year could come from two marine energy devices submerged in the nearby Kvichak River.

“We understand this state’s energy needs are different from the rest of the country,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm during a trip to Alaska in August. “The challenges here are bigger, with harder-to-reach communities that aren’t connected to transmission lines and rely on expensive diesel fuel to heat their homes.”

“And of course,” Secretary Granholm added, “the urgency is higher.”

Aerial view of a lake and mountains with snow.

Cordova is a community in Southeast Alaska near the mouth of the Copper River, at the head of Orca Inlet on the east side of Prince William Sound. The town is surrounded by naturally protected waters and the local hydropower plants supply the majority of the village’s electricity. Photo courtesy of Clay Koplin

In Alaska, thawing permafrost buckles roads, shrunken glaciers provide little water (which, like diesel, must be shipped to some remote locales), and temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else in the United States. The state, which has its own energy grid, relies heavily on petroleum fuels, like diesel, and pays higher energy prices than every state except Hawaii. And diesel shipments come with problems: fuel can spill, its fumes can cause long-term health effects, and it’s an expensive energy source. Additionally, extreme weather in Alaska can delay the delivery of diesel to remote communities. 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. But making the switch to renewable energy is also expensive; many isolated, rural villages like Igiugig often don’t have the financial resources to do so. Even if a community can afford to transition to a renewable like solar energy, it’s unlikely to provide enough power on its own. Harsh Alaskan winters get just a few hours of sun a day.

Now, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), Alaska’s remote villages, and even bustling urban communities, could tap a massive renewable energy source rushing through their state: water. There’s significant potential energy in Alaska’s vast river network—which could be used for new, small hydropower development—and even more potential for marine energy, which is electricity generated from the motion of waves, tides, and ocean currents. In fact, there’s enough potential energy across Alaska’s water resources to power every home in Alaska and then some, making the state an ideal candidate for this promising source of renewable energy.

“Of course, marine energy is still in its early stages,” said Secretary Granholm. “But we believe in it, and we are committed to boosting its development. And the state of marine energy in Alaska is a big reason why.”

Throughout 2021, WPTO has invested in several marine energy and hydropower projects in Alaska, working closely with community members to learn how to best serve their energy needs while respecting their culture. By tapping the largest tidal energy resource in the world, filling microgrids with clean marine energy, and building grids that can withstand avalanches, earthquakes, and cyberattacks, DOE aims to help Alaska—and the nation—transition to a clean, resilient energy future.

Alaska’s Cook Inlet Overflows With Tidal Energy

Alaska’s Cook Inlet flows 180 miles through motley permafrost and white-capped mountains. The inlet is Alaska’s oldest oil-and-gas-producing basin. But it also possesses one of the greatest tidal energy resources on Earth with currents that can stream in and out at 9 miles per hour and climb 25 feet up coastlines, slowly gobbling up sand bars and beaches before receding and repeating. The inlet is capable of powering 18 million homes, more than 20 times the power needed by all road-connected communities in the state.

Because Cook Inlet’s tidal resource is so massive, it could uplift Alaska’s struggling economy, powering energy-intensive industries like mineral smelting, fertilizer production, or renewable-fuel production. But those energetic waters come with challenges: floating ice, bitter cold, extreme turbulence, and gritty sediment. Before marine energy researchers deploy devices in such climates, they need to understand what they’re getting into.

That’s why WPTO-funded researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Ocean Renewable Power Company, and TerraSond Limited teamed up to submerge data-gathering buoys in Cook Inlet. The team’s buoys measured the water’s turbulence, velocity, salinity, temperature, and turbidity (the level of murkiness caused by sediment). Next, working with partners at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, the researchers will build detailed, three-dimensional models of the site to gauge how much energy installed tidal power devices could generate and how to best design robust tidal turbines to withstand the elements.

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National Renewable Energy Laboratory researcher Levi Kilcher, led a multi-lab team to deploy three moorings into the Cook Inlet, a highly energetic corner of the Pacific Ocean that is estimated to hold as much as 18 gigawatts of tidal energy potential – more than 20 times the amount used by all road-connected communities in Alaska. The data captured here will identify important details of the opportunities and challenges that come with turning these surging waters into a reliable and renewable power source for Alaskans.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The team’s findings will also be added to the Marine Energy Atlas, a central portal for data on ocean and river wave, tidal, current, and geothermal resources across the United States. Once a tidal energy device (like the Ocean Renewable Power Company’s device in Igiugig) proves to be reliable and robust, developers can build larger projects to power Alaska’s homes and the state’s economy, too.

Partners: NREL, Ocean Renewable Power Company, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and TerraSond Limited

The Throat That Swallows Water

The community of Igiugig, which means “like a throat that swallows water” in the Yup’ik language, is surrounded by water but not much else. The closest village is 40 miles away. The electric grid is even farther.

Like 250 other remote Alaskan communities, Igiugig has been dependent on diesel-powered generators for its electricity. But in 2005, the village set a goal to quit diesel by 2025. With funding from WPTO, the community is nearing that goal.

People stand smiling at the launch of RivGen Power Systems.

A celebration of the RivGen Power System installation included representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski's office, and the First Alaskans Institute, as well as Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy. Chris Sauer, the CEO of Ocean Renewable Power Company, which designed the RivGen device, also attended. Photo courtesy of Austin McDaniel, Governor Dunleavy’s Office

RivGen in the water.

The RivGen device generates renewable energy from currents in the Kvichak River, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Ocean Renewable Power Company

In 2019, WPTO partnered with the Igiugig Village Council, the state of Alaska, and Maine-based Ocean Renewable Power Company to design and install a device that could generate energy from currents in the Kvichak River. The 35-kilowatt device, called the RivGen® Power System, can generate 8 megawatt-hours of hydrokinetic energy a year. Two years later, the riverbed device was the longest operating current energy converter in the United States and provided close to half of the village’s energy needs. In 2021, the original device was removed for refurbishment and—with funding from DOE’s Office of Indian Energy—the village and its project partners deployed a second RivGen system. Once the original device is redeployed in summer 2022, the dual RivGens could reduce the community’s diesel use by 90%.

Because Ocean Renewable Power Company designed their device with simple parts, they hope a local workforce can easily deploy, retrieve, inspect, and maintain the technology with little help from outside contractors, making it a cost-effective, long-term solution for all river-based communities, no matter how remote. WPTO considers Igiugig an example of what can happen in similar small, independent communities—whether in Alaska, Canada, or other parts of the world.

Researchers will continue to monitor how icy winter conditions affect the device; in the winter of 2021, it survived a thick crust of ice and powered on. Because the Kvichak River has the largest wild sockeye salmon run in the world, researchers are also watching for potential impacts on the fish’s migrations. So far, studies show no interaction between the RivGen device and the salmon. Plus, fewer diesel imports mean less risk of a spill, a grave danger to the salmon.

Partners: Igiugig Village Council, NREL, and Ocean Renewable Power Company

Microgrids Powered by Naturally Moving Water

Igiugig is one of many Alaskan communities that stand to benefit from marine and hydrokinetic energy technologies. But how can a community decide if marine energy—or any renewable energy source—is a good solution for its power needs? Complicated data, such as the local resource potential and regional economic circumstances, must be considered but can be challenging to gather and model. That’s why multiple partners are collaborating to develop a decision support framework to enable the rapid assessment of a community’s potential to use marine energy to serve its energy needs.    

One such organization is the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), an applied energy research program based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The ACEP team is looking to understand the feasibility of upgrading microgrids in Alaska with energy storage and renewable energy sources, including tidal and wave energy. The center partnered with Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and XENDEE Corporation, a company that develops microgrid design and decision support software for energy planners and investors.

INL researchers will first collect data to identify regions where marine energy could help meet communities’ power needs. The team at XENDEE Corporation will then use INL’s insights to assess microgrid integration methods and strategies that are possible with Alaskan tidal and wave energy sources. XENDEE and ACEP will create a modeling platform and development plan for microgrids powered by marine hydrokinetic energy to serve remote communities.

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 would validate the proposed microgrid structure before it is built in the real world.

Partners: ACEP, INL, and XENDEE Corporation

Easing Energy Transitions

Alaskan fishermen feel the sting of climate change firsthand; their lives and livelihoods depend on the weather, the tides, and a stable ecosystem for salmon, halibut, cod, and trout. Rising temperatures and ocean acidity threaten this industry, which employs almost 60,000 people and brings in $5 billion each year.

In Sitka, Alaska, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association spends most of its earned income on diesel fuel imports to power its fishing fleet. But switching to an electric fleet seemed too expensive—until they earned support from DOE’s Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project (ETIPP).

ETIPP—an effort funded by multiple DOE offices—helps remote and island communities across the United States to plan their clean energy transition. Experts at DOE national laboratories work alongside local partners and community members to identify and implement clean, resilient solutions—a key part of DOE’s Powering the Blue Economy initiative. This year, five of the 11 ETIPP award winners are in Alaska:

  • The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association will explore hybrid fuel or an electric fishing fleet to both reduce its dependence on diesel and increase the earning potential of its members.
  • The entire Sitka community hopes to modernize its grid and increase renewable energy generation.
  • In Dillingham, expensive barge shipments of fossil fuels power the islanded grid. The community is exploring the possibility of extracting power from a nearby river using run-of-river hydropower, which splits a river, creating a smaller channel to generate power from the natural flow.
  • The citizens of Ouzinkie plan to replace their diesel generators, update their aging hydroelectric system, and add more renewable energy and storage technologies.
  • A fully diesel-fired, islanded grid powers Wainwright, which sits in the Arctic Circle, but its inhabitants hope to become more energy efficient and harness renewable energy to reduce their dependence on the fossil fuel.
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Eleven communities are charting their path to a more resilient energy future through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project.
U.S. Department of Energy

Partners: ACEP, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NREL, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Renewable Energy Alaska Project, and Sandia National Laboratories

Self-healing Microgrids

One of the first producing oil fields in Alaska was discovered in 1902 just outside Cordova. In 1933, it burned to the ground.

Today, Cordova is no longer dependent on oil, but its microgrid is still fragile. Two run-of-river hydropower plants on Power Creek and Humpback Creek provide about 70%–80% of the village’s electricity (with the rest generated by diesel). But avalanches, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, or even cyberattacks could dismantle its microgrid, leaving the islanded community, which experiences an average low temperature of 20°F in winter, especially vulnerable.

Person stands on a rock next to a creek.

Clay Koplin, CEO at Cordova Electric Cooperative, Inc. and Mayor of Cordova, Alaska, examines a greenfield site for a future hydropower project in Cordova. The site drops 1,500 feet into a community water supply where both water and energy are needed for the community’s growing seafood industry. Photo courtesy of Clay Koplin

Cordova’s unique microgrid makes them an ideal partner for DOE’s Resilient Alaskan Distribution System Improvements using Automation, Network Analysis, Control, and Energy Storage (RADIANCE) project, which aims to enhance how nimbly the microgrid can respond to rare—but catastrophic—disasters.

In 2021, NREL led a cross-institutional team to assess the technical and economic feasibility of increasing Cordova’s hydropower storage, model novel grid designs, install a battery system, and upgrade the grid’s network communications to improve cybersecurity and reliability. When energy demand is low, Cordova’s hydropower systems add to the reserve. Then, if disaster strikes, the grid can draw from the stores to avoid a crisis.

Lessons learned from RADIANCE will help more than 800 U.S. electric cooperatives build more resilient, reliable, and affordable microgrids.

Partners: DOE’s Office of Electricity, NREL, INL, Sandia National Laboratories, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, as well as several university partners and industry collaborators

Regional Goals for Nationwide Change

“President Biden and I see Alaska as a critical piece of our climate and energy puzzle,” said Secretary Granholm at the August National Hydropower Association’s Regional Meeting in Alaska. “And we know that hydropower is essential to Alaska’s energy future. After all, hydropower already provides a quarter of the state’s electricity.”

On August 16, Secretary Granholm attended the 2021 Alaska Regional Meeting. She was joined by Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, the National Hydropower Association’s President and CEO Malcolm Woolf, leaders from tribal villages (including Igiugig), and representatives from the state’s electric and hydropower industries. This mix of federal and local leaders met to discuss climate change effects in Alaska and the state’s clean energy future.

Secretary Granholm speaks at an NHA Alaska Regional Meeting.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm attended the National Hydropower Association’s 2021 Alaska Regional Meeting and shared her views about the value of hydropower and marine energy to Alaska’s clean energy future. Photo courtesy of Matthew Faubion, Alaska Public Media

Alaska’s environment is changing fast, and the state has the natural resources to help build a steadfast future based on renewable energy. The WPTO-supported projects described above are examples of how DOE can help tackle energy justice issues, especially the lack of access to reliable, affordable energy, and support Alaskan communities' transition to carbon-free energy.

But the impacts of these projects aren’t limited to Alaska’s borders; they’ll build a foundation for tribes and communities across the U.S. to innovate, invest, and transition to a clean energy future.

“If we can crack the code for place-based solutions to energy needs in Alaska,” Secretary Granholm said to conclude her remarks at the meeting, “I know we’ll be able to lead all of America into our clean energy future.”

DOE is doubling down on its efforts to support the energy, science, and national security needs of Alaska and the Arctic. DOE’s Arctic Energy Office was recently established to bring together technical expertise and resources from across the department, such as WPTO, to partner with arctic communities as they pursue their energy priorities. Learn more about opportunities to work with the DOE work in the Arctic, and beyond, by joining the ArcticX webinar on November 17.

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