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Features Zurich, Switzerland 18-05-2020

5 min read

Battery Power Moves a Remote and Resilient Alaska Fishing Town Closer to Energy Independence

Near the picturesque head of the Orca Inlet on Prince William Sound, at the mouth of the Copper River, lies the town of Cordova, Alaska. Renowned for its Copper River red salmon, the town relies on an economy intimately tied to commercial fishing and processing. Cordova boasts the state’s largest fishing fleet, and half of all households are involved in the industry. Commercial fishing also drives the town’s energy needs: Each spring, as seasonal workers arrive and fish-processing plants ramp up for the busy months ahead, the town’s peak electricity demand more than doubles from the winter peak.

However, meeting the increased energy demand in Cordova poses different challenges than in most towns because the remote community is not connected to major electric transmission lines or even highways. And then there’s the environment.

“Cordova has some real challenges in harnessing energy,” explains Clay Koplin, who is both the mayor of Cordova and the CEO of the local electricity cooperative. “It's a very extreme climate. Just in the last three years, we've had two earthquakes over 7.0, a large volcanic eruption, super storms that topped over 100 mile an hour winds, and several feet of snow in a period of two or three days.”

A move toward energy autonomy

Cordova has a long history of resiliency in the face of challenges, but its entire way of life was threatened in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused severe ecological and economic damage to the town and throughout the region. Due to its remote location, disaster response efforts did not fully meet the needs of the community and Cordova ultimately had to rebuild its economic base and infrastructure. This was a painful lesson.

As part of the recovery from the oil spill, Cordova Electric Cooperative (CEC) swiftly accelerated its move away from using diesel generators and diesel fuel, which had to be imported by ship. Relying on diesel was both costly and environmentally hazardous. The new direction toward energy autonomy focused on establishing a hybrid microgrid which would enable the adoption of renewable power from a variety of sources, including two new hydroelectric projects.

One of the key components of the microgrid plan was a battery energy storage system (BESS) that would help CEC regulate the electrical system and maximize the use of locally produced hydroelectric power. The BESS system came online in 2019, and with the BESS-supported microgrid in place, CEC has been able to reduce its dependence on diesel and move closer to its goals for sustainability, reliability and long-term management of the town’s electrical system.

In addition to environmental concerns, cost is also a major factor in delivering electricity to the town, and CEC prefers to run on hydropower as much as possible due to the economic advantages. For CEC, hydropower averages around $0.06/kWh, while diesel generation costs can be as much as ten times higher, depending on highly variable fuel prices. Hydropower alone meets as much as 78% of annual demand, but one of the key goals of the microgrid project has been to recover the hydropower lost during transition periods.

“While these hydroelectric projects provide almost all of our power in the summer, and a good portion of our power in the winter, they're just run-of-the river projects,” continued Koplin. “They don't store any energy at all. There's no dam to store the water, so we needed a way to balance our system loads.”

Battery Energy Storage Delivers

Enter the BESS, with Hitachi Energy’s industry-leading power conversion and advanced control technology, to generate efficiently and operate reliably. CEC’s BESS provides additional spinning reserve; this allows CEC to take full advantage of the hydropower generation potential. To balance system loads, the Hitachi Energy system is coupled with Li-Ion batteries to replace diesel or hydro power for grid frequency stabilization. The Hitachi Energy system is fully automatic and is set to work as the main CEC microgrid frequency forming source.

“This battery energy storage system is performing so well now that we expect it to save between 40,000 and 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year,” adds Koplin. “It provides the opportunity to bring more renewables and to save even more, so we're very excited. We've just smashed every hydroelectric production record and in November (2019), we were 95% hydro. In December (2019) alone, we were 84% hydro, almost twice the hydro that we used to get. The system is just performing fantastic.”

“Hitachi Energy has more than 30 years of working with customers to develop innovative approaches to energy resiliency,” said Maxine Ghavi, SVP Grid Edge Solutions for Hitachi Energy. “Customers around the globe, like Cordova Electric Cooperative, are looking for energy solutions, services, and support that address highly variable conditions and scenarios, not only keep the lights on today, but also to future-proof their investments in a more digitally connected and collaborative future.”

This project represents a major milestone in renewable adoption for CEC and the town of Cordova. It is a significant move toward energy independence and the ultimate goal of eliminating use of fossil fuels throughout the community. The vision is to have a self-sufficient, sustainable electrical system used not only for electricity generation, but for home heating and for charging electric vehicles and boats as well.

“Selecting Hitachi Energy as the battery energy storage system provider was a ‘no brainer.’ We've used Hitachi Energy transformers and controls…and we wanted to have a very commercial grade, solid, well-built piece of equipment,” Koplin says. “And more importantly, we wanted the technical support and deep technical resources of a company that's been around for over 100 years.”