In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, staying warm through the winter can cost you. Families spend hundreds of dollars a month on heating fuel, and communities like Kongiganak, colloquially known as Kong, are trying to change that.
After years of hard work, the village's utility company has not only managed to cut some of its residents’ heating bills in half, but built a revolutionary microgrid along the way.
Last month, Roderick Phillip gave me a tour of Kong’s power plant, a loud, gray warehouse off the village boardwalk. "You can look up there and you can see there’s a whole bunch of instruments," he said.
Phillip is the manager of the Puvurnaq Power Company, Kong’s local utility. The village is a member of the Chaninik Wind Group, a group of four communities that’s working together to build new energy systems. Like the other Chaninik villages, Kong gets its electrical power from a hybrid system that uses both diesel and renewable energy. On average, the village's five local wind turbines provide Kong with about 25 percent of its power needs.
But to get a real sense of why Kong's microgrid is so special, you have to take a walk around town.
After touring the power plant, Phillip and I visited the home of Ralph Kiunya, the General Manager of Kong’s local corporation. Two identical twin toddlers in matching parkas played on the front steps while one of Kiunya's daughters was baking a cake in the kitchen. Kiunya's home is warm and cozy, and he attributes that to the large thermal stove in a corner. The built-in heater was warming the whole house and doing a few other things too.
"You see those kettles?" Kiunya said. "They're warmed constantly when this is on, so I have warm water all the time. We even put wet clothes [on it], even gloves to keep them warm during winter time when it is on."
This thermal stove, and others like it, are what makes Kong’s microgrid so revolutionary. On particularly windy days, Kong’s wind turbines can produce more power than its grid can use. So Kong’s utility company installed thermal stoves in homes throughout the village. The heating units are hooked up to Kong’s microgrid, and excess energy that the wind turbines generate is diverted to them.
Kong's utility company has installed thermal stoves in dozens of homes so far, and Kiunya says that his stove has cut his heating costs by more than 50 percent. He looks forward to using that money for other things. "Mostly groceries," he said with a chuckle. "Good stuff. Yummies for my grandkids."
According to Manager Roderick Phillip, Kiunya’s not alone. He said that Kong residents with thermal stoves are saving hundreds of dollars a month.
"The money’s going into their pockets," he said. "Over 90 percent of our community relies on subsistence, and the savings they’re getting is going to putting more food on the table."
Microgrids are a big deal in Alaska, but even by those standards Kong's is unique. "They're a petri dish; they can be a laboratory," said Dennis Meiners, the founder of Intelligent Energy Systems. Meiners' company specializes in renewable energy solutions for remote communities. He’s worked closely with Phillip over the past few years and helped Kong’s utility develop a sustainable grid.
According to Meiners, Kong’s system has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy, and he recently spoke at a conference in Canada about the project. The way that Kong reroutes its excess energy to heating power could be a model for other communities, and the village wants to increase its use of wind power in the next few years. Meiners expects Kong's wind turbines to displace over 50 percent of the community’s diesel usage, and other microgrid experts are watching the project to see if Kong can pull it off.
Not everyone in the industry thinks that they can. Josh Kraft, an engineer with the Alaska Energy Authority who's familiar with the project, says that Kong could have found more up-to-date wind turbine equipment. "It means that they’re not going to offset as much diesel as we hoped," he said. Newer turbines would have been more effective, said Kraft. This is a fast-advancing field of technology.
"But that’s how technology goes," he said. "You wouldn’t necessarily use a computer from 10 years ago today."
Dennis Meiners disagrees and said that Kraft seems misinformed about the project. He agrees that the wind turbines aren’t the most up-to-date model, but he said that they’ve been completely reconfigured and adapted to Kong’s needs. No one is making wind turbines that are a perfect fit for Alaska’s villages, so Kong had to build something new.
One way or another, Kong’s microgrid is a learning experience for the energy industry. It's also continuing to evolve. This month, the utility company is installing more thermal stoves and a bank of lithium batteries. According to Roderick Phillip, the increased energy storage should help the microgrid run more efficiently.
"By next month we will have the most advanced system in the northern hemisphere," he said. "And our own people will be taking of it."
Phillip might be overstating this a bit, but Kong’s system is certainly going to be one of the best. Its batteries and new thermal stoves should be up and running by the end of November and Kong’s heating bills are, once again, expected to drop.