As parts of Alaska hit new record lows for April — blizzard conditions, negative 70 degree wind chill, and temperatures more than 40 degrees below zero in some parts of the state — we’re reminded, as we often are during winter months, to be grateful for the comfort of warm shelters that stand up to even the most wicked of weather events.
That comfort comes easier in some places than others.
Hundreds of villages, spanning the state across miles upon miles of wilderness, are powered by microgrids, which are self-sufficient energy systems that act as individual controllable entities.
Alaska’s microgrids depend primarily on high cost imported diesel fuel to bring electricity to rural homes, businesses, and community buildings. As a result, rural residents pay much more than residents in Alaska’s more populated areas in the Railbelt or Southeast.
These expenditures on imported heat and fuel for electric power generation represent a significant drain on local households. Finding a consistent, lower cost source of energy — including both electric power and heat — would mean that instead of spending income on utility services, rural Alaskans could invest additional funds in education, technology, new businesses, savings, and more.
One way to reduce the cost of power and increase reliability is through innovative new energy solutions.
An emerging technology, micro-nuclear reactors, is being considered as an option for powering remote microgrids. Micro-nuclear reactors, approximately the size of a shipping container or small house, offer consistent, nearly maintenance-free power for 10 to 20 years before requiring refueling.
At the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Energy and Power, Gwen Holdmann and her team are dedicated to applied energy research and technology testing focused on lowering the cost of energy in Alaska. Known by many as one of the top global experts in microgrid energy systems, Holdmann thinks nuclear energy has the potential to replace diesel fuel in rural communities but recognizes that concerns exist.
“The nuclear energy industry has really evolved over time. The last 10 years have seen a new, much more flexible approach to how nuclear energy can be deployed. Systems are smaller, modular, and with more inherent built-in safety features,” says Holdmann. “That said, many people have a sort of visceral reaction to the idea of radioactive materials potentially contaminating the environment and that is legitimate. When you’re thinking about energy sources, it’s important to evaluate potential risk as part of a broader decision-making process.
“That includes understanding the technology, how the technology functions under a variety of operational and environmental conditions, and consideration of the full life cycle including fuel management. Then you have to balance all of those concerns against the potential to reduce costs or create new economic opportunities.”
Richelle Johnson, lead analyst at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, or CED, just wrapped up a year-and-a-half long project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and Idaho National Labs researching potential use cases for small scale nuclear power.
“Alaska’s future energy landscape is going to look a lot different than it does today,” says Johnson. “It’ll be a mix of renewables and fossil fuels, but realistically it could also include nuclear.”
Johnson and other UA CED researchers interviewed a number of potential energy users, ranging from small villages and hub communities to remote mining projects and military installments.
“The people we interviewed for the report were experts in their field, and were very aware of the limitations of renewables in Alaska — you can only gather wind resources when the wind is blowing, you can only collect solar power when the sun is up — you still need a consistent baseload, and right now that comes from diesel,” Johnson said.
Despite interest in the benefits of nuclear power, researchers found skepticism about operating a new nuclear technology in remote areas and a preference to see it proven out elsewhere first.
“When it’s -20 degrees outside, you have to know how to fix something, and right now it is still unclear what that looks like for micro-reactors,” says Johnson.
Silicon Valley-based Oklo, a venture-funded company founded in 2013, is poised to deploy its first project in Idaho Falls on the Idaho National Labs campus. As the sole company with a license application to build and operate a small-scale nuclear power plant, they are leading the industry in new technology. Large players like General Electric and Westinghouse are not far behind with designs of their own, however.
Co-founder and CEO Jacob DeWitte, says that Oklo’s microreactors are a far cry from what most people picture when they think of nuclear energy.
“We look different and operate different because we’ve been able to incorporate technology that’s been developing for decades,” he said.
He’s looking for an Alaska site for his second deployment project, and has spent time in the state as a portfolio company for Launch Alaska, an Anchorage-based nonprofit dedicated to energy innovation.
“Right now we’re in the process of finding partners and end users for our system. Alaska offers so much diversity in culture, climate, and geographic regions,” DeWitte said. “From a technical perspective, making something work in Alaska would help us evaluate our capacity to deliver in the most demanding environments in the world, to really prove out what we can do. If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere.”
The deployment at INL is planned for sometime in the early 2020s if everything goes to plan, and an Alaska project would follow. The company is already pursuing multiple leads in Alaska, and is actively seeking additional customers in the states. DeWitte says that although he understands concerns, he’s hoping to help people shift their thinking about nuclear energy.
“Our microreactors are inherently safe, self stabilize, are able to shut themselves down, and stay cool without a lot of operational involvement,” says DeWitte. “These are simple, safe systems.”
That’s not to say nuclear energy shouldn’t continue to be treated with care.
Holdmann referenced a floating Russion nuclear power plant (with more, such as a 35-megawatt barge, being planned to serve Russia’s Arctic communities) noting that if there were an accident on it, it would negatively impact Alaska’s fisheries. Other countries, like Canada and China are deeply engaged in research, testing, and deployment of small modular reactors.
“There’s been a significant increase of nuclear installations across the world, especially in regions with more friendly permitting and licensing,” says Holdmann. “As a country, if we want to maintain our leadership in this industry, we need to pay attention to what’s going on. There’s a balance between caution and progress.”
Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.