Energy Fund manager talks renewables at Chamber luncheon

Juneau sources all of its electricity from renewable hydroelectric power, but that doesn’t mean the city can’t benefit from emerging energy technology.

Just ask Josh Craft, program manager with the Alaska Energy Authority’s Emerging Energy Technology Fund. Craft, who heads EETF grant program — aimed at promoting fresh ideas to lower Alaska’s energy costs — spoke at Thursday’s Juneau Chamber of Commerce Luncheon.

From air-source heat pumps, flywheel energy storage, innovative exhaust designs and a “hydrokinetic device” — a submersible machine that harvests hydropower from river flows — the EETF has awarded more than $15 million to test energy innovations in Alaska’s unique climate.

Twenty of the 21 projects the EETF has funded, concepts all untested in Alaska, would potentially benefit Southeast, according to Alaska Energy Authority outreach manager Katie Conway.

But before Craft got to talk about any emerging technologies, he had an important point to make.

“The first thing we consider is always energy efficiency. The kilowatt-hour you don’t use is the cheapest one, so energy efficiency is always the first thing a community should look to,” he said.

Many of the EETF’s projects focus on wind power, a readily-available resource in much of diesel-dependant rural Alaska. Running off hydropower, Southeast doesn’t have a much of a need for cheaper electricity, its energy issues have more to do with reliability: Juneau’s electrical grid is what Craft called a “microgrid,” a standalone system without a cheap, reliable backup.

“A microgrid is basically any grid in Alaska,” Craft said. “It’s a small portion of an electrical grid which stands alone or can breakaway from a main grid.”

When microgrids break down, sometimes due to natural disaster, electricity users have to find other options — in Juneau’s case, by firing up downtown-based generators burning costly diesel fuel.

Because of Alaska’s dependence on microgrids, Craft and the EETF focused their most recent round of funding on improving Alaska’s more than 200 standalone systems, helping them become more stable on their own.

“What we’re trying to do, is that since every grid in Alaska is a microgrid, how do we improve the efficiency, the reliability and resiliency of our microgrids,” he said.

According to a story by Alaska Public Media, 78 percent of people in Juneau use oil to heat their homes. That number that could fall if one EETF technology proves viable.

In winter of 2014-2015, the Cold Climate Housing Resource Center began testing an innovative “air-source heat pump” which could offset some of Juneau’s fossil fuel usage by making electric heating an even cheaper option.

The CCHRC is developing the heating option to be compatible with a popular Southeast technology, what’s called “hyrdonic baseboard heating” — the 6-inch tall metal baseboards that click when heating up.

Air-source heat pumps currently on the market don’t work with hydronic baseboard heating as it requires a substantially-hotter water supply than the pumps are designed to provide.

So the CCHRC partnered with Alaska Electric Light and Power to design air-source heat pumps which provide the correct temperature of water.

Potential for heat pump applications in Southeast is “quite high,” according to Conway and a “very good technology” for the region, in Craft’s words. Results for the CCHRC study are available at cchrc.org.

Establishing renewable energy technology in Alaska could become much harder in the near future. The 39 projects proposed to the Renewable Energy Fund — the EETF’s counterpart for established alternative energy tech — went unfunded by the Alaska legislature last year.

Because the REF doesn’t expect the legislature to fund 2017’s proposals, they aren’t currently accepting proposals.

The EETF has approved two proposals for their third round of funding totalling $500,000 in grants, half of which was funded by a competitively awarded federal grant.

One of the projects will seek to improve microgrid technology. The other will demonstrate the viability of a “gasification” power source, a combined heat and power unit capable of producing 40-kW of electicity along with 100-kW of heat.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

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