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SEAPA seeking innovative ways to make hydropower more effective

The Southeast Alaska Power Agency is seeking new ways to make hydropower more efficient and more consistent through innovative new technology. KSTK’s Anne Hillman found out more about the study.

The problem with hydropower is that sometimes the water flow and the electric needs of the community don’t match up. Limited water supplies produce less electricity in the winter, when power loads are higher, so Southeast Alaskan communities have to rely partially on diesel. In the late summer and early fall, lots of rain leads to large flows when less power is needed. The extra water is allowed to spill over the dam.

“And as we speak both Swan Lake and Tyee Lake are spilling energy,” said Southeast Alaska Power Agency Director of Special Projects Eric Wolfe. “And when you spill, the water is lost and cannot be captured for use later for hydroelectric production. So we want to find a way to store up that energy so we can use it later when loads are high.”

SEAPA is seeking support and funding for a feasibility study examining the potential of storing extra power from the summer for use in the winter. One option would be using the extra water that currently spills over to create electricity that could split water into hydrogen. The hydrogen is then used as a power source in the winter when loads are high but water flow is low. The extra energy can also be stored in ammonia. Wolfe said that if the project works, one benefit would be not needing to rely on diesel in the winter.

“The second benefit is, it makes all hydro-projects more valuable. And that’s a very long-term goal. But if you don’t need a dam to operate a power plant and you could effectively store energy in a different medium, then all sorts of options open up for hydropower.”

Wolfe says you would not have to build a dam to control and store up water to create consistent electricity. Instead, the power could be produced from the natural flow of water then held in storage tanks until it’s needed. It would eliminate the environmental problems that come with dams, like blocking fish passage and hurting water quality.

“The problem of course is that it has to be cost effective and safe,” he said.

A diagram from SEAPA’s Hydro-to-Hydrogen proposal showing how the energy storage setup might look.

Which is where the feasibility study comes into play. The technology to store power as hydrogen or ammonia is still new. Wolfe says that much of the feasibility study involves doing a literature review and looking at all of the similar set ups that are currently in operation. Then they would see how it could work in conjunction with SEAPA’s facilities in the Southeast. All of the data would be used to develop a small prototype plant. Because it’s such a new idea, Wolfe also hopes they can collaborate with universities and other power producers.

And if it works, “Southeast Alaska and really Alaska in general has a lot of applications where it could really change the energy makeup of the state” because the techonology could be used to store power from wind and waves as well.

At this stage, the project has support from the local governments of Wrangell, Petersburg, and Ketchikan as well as the entire SEAPA board. SEAPA is seeking a $245,000 grant from the Alaska Energy Authority to fund the study, which would take about a year to complete.

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