This archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska is home to one of the busiest commercial fishing ports in the country. Inside the Ocean Beauty seafood plant in Kodiak, where a maze of conveyer belts carry gutted salmon past workers in hairnets and gloves, manager James Turner ticks off everything that contributes to his monthly electricity bill: canning machines, pressure cookers, freezers lights.
"We use a lot of power here," he says.
Plus, down the road is the nation's largest Coast Guard base and to the south is a state-owned rocket launch facility. It's no small feat, then, that the power for all of this is generated right here on the island, from almost entirely renewable sources.
More places are exploring creating microgrids after a spate of hurricanes and other storms knocked out power to millions in recent years. In Puerto Rico, especially, advocates say this could help key institutions like hospitals and military bases keep the lights on when the larger grid goes down. They might want to look north — far north — for guidance.
"Alaskans have been doing this for 50 years," says Ian Baring-Gould, of the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colorado. He says the state's remote communities have "an amazing wealth of expertise in that area."
Of course, not all of Alaska's microgrids run on renewable energy.
Kodiak has long gotten most of its electricity from a hydro dam. But a decade ago, as demand grew, it was relying more and more on diesel generators. The cost of diesel was high and unpredictable, a problem for businesses trying to forecast their expenses.
"When you have that threat of a diesel bill hanging over your head every month, that is very motivating to find solutions," says Jennifer Richcreek of the Kodiak Electric Association, or KEA.
"Everyone's TV's are going to brown out"
In 2007, the utility set a goal of 95 percent renewable power. It built a handful of wind turbines, plus a bank of batteries to supplement the community's hydro power. That worked for a while. But then came a new challenge: the Kodiak port wanted to replace its old diesel-powered crane with a giant electric one.
The 340-foot tall shipping crane would be a massive power hog. Demand would spike every time it lifted a container off a cargo ship. When Rick Kniaziowski, the terminal manager for the shipping company Matson, first asked about getting it, the head of the local utility said no.
"His eyes got really big," Kniaziowski says. He was told, "Everyone's TVs are going to brown out, and they're either going to hate you or they're going to hate us.'"
But the utility looked around for a solution, and it found a European company, ABB, that offered a new kind of energy storage: flywheels.
There are two here now. From the outside, they look like a couple of white trailers behind a chain-link fence. But inside, they're cutting edge sci fi. In the corner of each trailer is a "six and a half ton of spinning mass," says KEA's Richcreek. "It's in a frictionless vacuum chamber hovered by magnets."
Here's how it works: When there's excess power on the grid, it spins the flywheel. The flywheel stores that energy as motion, and then pumps it back out the second a big surge is needed. When the crane isn't operating, the flywheels respond to fluctuations in wind power, working with the batteries to stabilize the grid. Kodiak is one of the first places in the world to use flywheels this way.
Altogether, Kodiak's microgrid operates like an orchestra, each piece responding millisecond by millisecond. The wind drops suddenly and the flywheel kicks on. As the flywheel slows, the batteries step in. And behind it all, the hydro ramps up. And Kodiak has managed to do all this while keeping rates stable. In fact, the price of electricity in Kodiak has dropped slightly since 2000.
Richcreek says this is the future.
"The solutions are out there," she says. "They're outside the box. They may be different. But the industry is changing."
The system has drawn international interest, and Kodiak hopes other American communities will take note, too.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Puerto Rico might want to look north - far north - for one solution to its infrastructure problems. Alaska's remote communities have had to power themselves for decades. One has managed to do that almost entirely on renewable energy. Rachel Waldholz of Alaska's Energy Desk explains.
RACHEL WALDHOLZ, BYLINE: Kodiak, Alaska, is one of the busiest fishing ports in the country. And it smells like it. The waterfront is lined with seafood plants. At the Ocean Beauty plant, James Turner gives a tour of the slime line.
JAMES TURNER: So we call it the slime line 'cause it's a wet environment.
WALDHOLZ: Inside, it's a maze of conveyor belts. There are canning machines, pressure cookers, freezers. The power for all of that is generated right here on the island, mostly from a hydro dam. But 10 years ago, Kodiak had a problem. It was relying more and more on diesel generators, and diesel prices were sky high and unpredictable. Jennifer Richcreek works for the Kodiak Electric Association, the local utility.
JENNIFER RICHCREEK: When you have that threat of a diesel bill hanging over your head every month, that is very motivating to find solutions.
WALDHOLZ: So the utility set a goal of 95 percent renewable power. They installed six wind turbines and a bank of batteries, and that worked pretty well. But then there was a new challenge at the Kodiak port.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
RICK KNIAZIOWSKI: Make sure your hardhats are on pretty tight. It gets a little windy.
WALDHOLZ: I am standing way out on the arm of a shipping crane with Rick Kniaziowski. He works for the shipping company Matson. This crane is giant, taller than anything else in sight. And it's electric, a big power hog. If I look down, I can watch the operator lift a container off the cargo ship.
Wow, this is so cool (laughter).
Every time it does that, it causes a spike in demand on the power grid. That's why back when Kniaziowski first asked the head of the local utility about getting this crane, the answer was no.
KNIAZIOWSKI: His eyes got really big and he's like, I just don't see it, Rick. Everyone's TVs are going to brown out, and they're going to either hate you or they're going to hate us.
WALDHOLZ: But the utility found a European company that offered a new kind of energy storage - a flywheel. There are two here now, and they look - well, they look like a couple of trailers behind a chain-link fence. But inside they're pretty sci-fi. There's a massive chunk of spinning steel. I'll let Richcreek explain.
RICHCREEK: It's in a frictionless vacuum chamber hovered by magnets, which is so cool.
WALDHOLZ: The flywheel stores energy as motion and then pumps it out the second a big surge is needed. Kodiak is one of the first places in the world to use a flywheel this way. Altogether, the microgrid on this island operates like an orchestra, each piece watching the rest, responding automatically, millisecond by millisecond. The wind drops suddenly and the flywheel kicks on. As the flywheel slows, the batteries step in. And behind it all, the hydro ramps up. Richcreek says this is the future.
RICHCREEK: The solutions are out there. They're outside the box. They may be different. But the industry is changing.
WALDHOLZ: The system has drawn interest from around the world, and Kodiak hopes other American communities will take notice, too. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Waldholz in Kodiak, Alaska.
MCEVERS: That story comes to us from Alaska's Energy Desk. It's a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.