• Microgrid
  • Utility Distribution Microgrids
  • Software and Applications

Alaska Leads the Way on Maintaining Microgrids Under Life-and-Death Conditions

Peter Asmus
Aug 07, 2020

Guidehouse Insight solar panel

Alaska is a leading global market for microgrids. These microgrids, located in some of the most remote places on Earth, provide electricity under extreme weather conditions. Power outages are literally life-and-death situations, as these microgrids are typically not interconnected to a traditional power grid. If these microgrids fail, people can perish in the sub-zero weather. In 2019, Guidehouse Insights published a white paper focused on remote microgrid design and implementation in the circumpolar Arctic, which includes Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and other northern European countries.

Microgrid Project Market Share, Circumpolar Arctic: 2Q 2019

Microgrid Project Market Share, Circumpolar Arctic: 2Q 2019

(Sources: Guidehouse Insights, Alaska Center for Energy and Power) 

Lessons Learned from Alaska

The white paper offers critical lessons learned from Alaska that apply to the developing world:

  • Robust and simple designs work best
  • Modest inclusion of energy storage helps keep costs contained
  • Thermal energy innovation is vital to project success
  • There is a key role for wind technology in remote microgrids
  • Microgrids can bust the myth that solar PV cannot work in the circumpolar Arctic
  • An all-of-the-above approach to resource development works best for microgrids
  • Local stakeholder buy-in is key to project success

The white paper did not address in detail an issue related to the importance of local stakeholder involvement: the challenges for ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) for remote microgrids. This issue could be a weakness for the industry if not addressed strategically. 

The Human Side of Microgrid O&M

A startup based in Alaska is addressing this O&M issue head-on. 60Hertz has pioneered an enterprise software solution to help maintenance teams in very remote locations, including villages and isolated commercial and industrial sites such as mines. Remote locations are often outside mobile data coverage, so the offline-first capabilities of the 60Hertz solution are critical. The platform is designed with an intuitive interface to serve remote maintenance workers who have varying levels of literacy and often lack formal training or education. 60Hertz is currently used by multiple Alaskan utilities, with approximately 250 active daily users expected by mid-August. Current customers in Alaska include the Alaska Village Electric Coop, Nushagak Electric and Telephone Cooperative, Kotzebue Electric Association, and TDX Power. With the help of the US Agency for International Development, the company is active in Colombia and expanding into developing world markets such as Nepal, Nigeria, and Suriname. PowerGen Renewable Energy also plans to deploy the product in Tanzania on a subset of its microgrids.

“Maintenance software is often associated with masculine, gritty adjectives and puts the focus on the assets themselves,” observed 60Hertz founder and CEO Piper Foster Wilder. “In contrast, our company is proving the importance of taking a human-centered approach by creating a tool built to serve and support the people performing critical maintenance activities.”

Facing the Challenges of Remote Microgrid O&M

Why is O&M such a challenge for remote microgrids? There are several reasons. Among them is the primitive status of many O&M systems, which still rely on paper, pencil, and fax. Then there are the expensive logistics in just reaching sites, sometimes hundreds of miles from company locations. Finally, operators are often unsupported and unsupervised. The end result is that the average cost for a project failure is $300,000 per incident because replacing components is the only way to repair systems. 

60Hertz is releasing a new version of its product this summer. One of its first customers is the Naval Information Warfare Center – Pacific, which will deploy its new upgraded software at the San Nicholas Island microgrid off the coast of California. Although this location doesn’t face the life-and-death circumstances of 60Hertz’ circumpolar Arctic users, the benefits of eased and less costly remote microgrid O&M are appreciable nonetheless.