How A Single Idea Brought Hydropower to Alaskan Neighborhood

The growing concern for the environment has prompted many individuals to take matters into their own hands to lower their environmental footprint. From creatively decreasing water consumption, cutting out meat, or taking public transportation, the escalating awareness and action have created a domino effect of change.

How A Single Idea Brought Hydropower to Alaskan Neighborhood

This dedication is seen throughout the country, even in the more rural states such as Alaska. There, one man took it upon himself to introduce hydropower to his community. Over roughly ten years, hydrologist Dave Brailey designed and executed a $1.7 million micro-hydro plant that can effectively bring energy to up to 300 homes depending on the time of year.

The plan, named The Juniper Creek Hydroelectric Project, incorporates Brailey's knowledge gained from 35 years in the industry, time, and financial means to provide energy to a location that might not otherwise have this access. In addition, the project can help to inspire and educate others on the importance of renewable energy and how incorporating it can be achieved on an individual level.

Renewable Energy in the US

Renewable energy consists of energy sources that are naturally replenishing, such as solar, hydro, biomass, geothermal, and wind. In the United States, hydropower energy is the third most used form of renewable energy, right behind biomass and wind.

When executed properly, renewable energy can result in lower atmospheric emissions than traditional energy sources such as fossil fuels. The energy source is also beneficial in that it has less direct harm to local ecosystems.

Hydropower is one of the oldest forms of energy known to humankind. Traditionally used as a watermill to turn a paddle that ground grain, today the renewable energy source is produced thanks to running water turning a turbine and generating energy. That generated energy is then either sent directly to the grid or to a battery attached to the turbine where it will be stored for future use.

In Alaska, renewable energy hasn't seen mainstream adoption like in other US states, such as Oregon or Washington. Nevertheless, the state is looking to incorporate more energy options to reach a goal of 50% of its electricity generated from renewable sources by 2025. As of 2019, the state is currently at 26% of energy from renewable sources, meaning there is still work to be done. Of these renewable sources, hydropower is a primary producer for Alaska, producing an estimated 14.5 billion British thermal units (Btu).

From Idea To Execution

Due to Alaska's proximity to the mainland USA, the state doesn't have as advanced sustainable development. This can be seen to a greater extent in the more rural parts of the state, where many inhabitants rely on diesel-generated electricity. That said, there is a large room for improvement and advancement due to Alaska's size, uninhabited land, coastline, and powerful winds.

Brailey incorporated his desire for sustainability and the lack of renewable infrastructure in the area to begin his long process of bringing hydropower to his community. He says, “I’ve always thought we need to do something about carbon emissions, and this sort of became my purpose in life, to make something for my children and for humanity going forward.”

The journey began with Brailey, his wife, and a couple of friends purchased the 160-acre property in 2005 with the desire to utilize it for backcountry hiking and skiing. Fast forward a few years, and Brailey altered his plans to utilize the land for generating energy. After making this decision, he spent the next decade growing his knowledge on the topic and learning how to bring his idea to reality.

In 2018, Brailey obtained the 14 licenses needed from state authorities that permitted him to start building his power plant.

Though impressive, this feat wasn't done alone. According to the Anchorage Daily News, Brailey designed the hydropower plant, did a fair amount of physical labor, and provided financial means supplied by his retirement accounts. However, he outsourced help in more specialized areas, including civil engineering and a helicopter to fly in the material needed to build the hydropower plant.

Brailey also partnered with the local utility company Matanuska Electric Association. In July of this year, his hydro plant, situated 2000-ft above sea level, will be able to produce up to 300-kilowatts of energy.

CEO of the Matanuska Electric Association, Ed Jenkin, explained that this particular project is unique in that it came from the mind and drive of one individual rather than an engineering or environmental company.

A spokeswoman for the company, Julie Estey said, “We are really open to having new and innovative kinds of power on our system. We are pretty agnostic to what the technology is, we just want it to be reliable and cost-effective for our members.” The Matanuska Electric Association is a shining example of how local utility companies can help drive sustainable change within a local economy and make a significant difference.

With the continuing growth in sustainability and ambitious individuals like Brailey, we can expect a future filled with improved energy options, lowered emissions, and more technological advancements.


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