Lessons Learned from Cordova
Connecting America’s most advanced grid modernization project with the world
By Clay Koplin and Peter Asmus
In July, the Isolated Power Systems (IPS) Connect conference was hosted in Cordova, AK by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), and the Cordova Electric Cooperative. The conference, previously hosted in Australia by the University of Tasmania, drew participants to Alaska from far-flung parts of the world including Samoa, Fiji and Greenland, as well as the lower-48. Attendees learned about the leading role Alaska plays in the U.S. microgrid market, and how many installed systems in the state are proven and exemplary models for more sustainable and resilient energy systems worldwide.
Alaska has more microgrid capacity than any other state in the U.S., and Cordova - a southeast coastal community of 2,600 people isolated from traditional power grids and road systems - is a shining example of the innovation taking place with isolated power systems in the 49th state. With a century worth of experience in renewable energy generation and microgrids, Cordova provided a rich setting for IPS attendees to learn about the resiliency and reinvention paramount to ground-up energy transitions.
As this video explains, the catalyst for installing more renewables in Cordova was not solely climate change, but rather the community’s vulnerability to supply chain disruptions. Fuel must be shipped into the remote fishing village where power outages are a life and death situation and extreme weather is common. Over the past seven years alone, Cordova has experienced four earthquakes over 7.0 magnitude, a large volcanic eruption, tsunami warnings and evacuations, superstorms with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour (it typically rains 200 days a year) and massive snow storms leading to avalanches threatening its run-of-river hydro facilities.
These challenges reveal important lessons for world energy markets and offer a blueprint for resiliency and revival for remote communities around the world. The community of Cordova is a bit of a come-back kid. Consider the following history:
- The discovery of copper in Cordova 110 years ago led to the development of the Copper River and Northwest Railroad – the largest private railroad, some 220 miles – in the world.
- When the copper ran out in 1938, Cordova shifted gears to emerge as the world’s largest razor clam fishery. After one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit Alaska in 1964, however, the seabed around Cordova raised 8 feet and destroyed the clam fishery.
- Following the 1964 earthquake, Cordova turned to salmon and built a quality model around the Copper River Salmon fishery, widely considered to be the premium salmon fishery worldwide.
- Tragedy struck again in 1989 with the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill, which devastated local fisheries and economies.
- Cordova ultimately restored the Copper River fisheries and leveraged their abundant hatchery and wild pink salmon stocks to diversify to the point that the industry generates roughly $100 million annually for the local economy. Today, Cordova boasts Alaska’s largest fishing fleet and Copper River salmon is prized as the world’s best.
Despite this dynamic past of boom and bust – or perhaps because of it - Cordova boasts one of the most advanced grid-modernization programs in the U.S. and even the world. The community developed this sophisticated microgrid through a series of required, hands-on, incremental improvements through the years to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and help mitigate the impacts of climate change that have accelerated at a rate four times faster in the circumpolar north than the rest of the world.
Cordova’s Long History with Microgrids
The earliest hydroelectric devices in Cordova date back more than a century. In 1907, Cordova Light and Power built the Humpback creek hydroelectric project with a 300-kilowatt Pelton Wheel generator providing 2400V three-phase power to Cordova. Due to the variability of this renewable resource, local utility managers shifted community power production to conventional diesel power systems in the 1940’s that provided more reliable round-the-clock electricity. By the late 1970’s however, the undermaintained and worn out diesel generators operated with rolling blackouts and the community of Cordova organized and formed an electric cooperative to takeover utility management from the city.
The formation of Cordova Electric Cooperative (CEC) in 1978 revolutionized power production in the community. This customers-as-owner model prioritizes community values and a deeper alignment between customers and purpose over utility profits. As managers of the utility, customers are responsible for fixing technologies when they break down, therefore directly incentivizing a more robust, renewable, and resilient power system. CEC created a strategic plan to shift Cordova to a more balanced and nuanced system that included upgrades to the diesel and hydroelectric plants and hardening the community’s distribution system by moving powerlines underground.
Increasingly more talented staff and contractors continued to raise the bar and push CEC’s strategic plan forward. The relaying and load shedding program implemented in 1999 reduced outages to under 2-3 hours per customer per year. In 2001, the utility commissioned the Power creek hydroelectric project, adding a second hydro plant to the community’s power production and integrated a battery energy storage system (BESS) in 2019. In line with the self-reliance ethos of Alaska and other Arctic communities, Cordova’s energy innovation grew incrementally over time from lessons learned in the field.
Many of the innovations at Cordova Electric Cooperative address unique challenges imposed by Alaska’s wild weather that can’t be fixed with off-the-shelf products. For example, small adjustments made to the deflectors in hydroelectric facilities to fix water-flow frequency variations or dispatching excess renewable energy to offset the carbon intensive process of providing reliable heat during long, cold winter days. The utility also buried all their powerlines to protect this critical infrastructure during the powerful storms regularly experienced by the community. The seasonal commercial fishing industry creates its own unique challenges too with hyperdynamic seafood processing load shifts and peak demands in the summer. The utility’s combination of hydropower, diesel, battery storage systems and sophisticated demand management coupled with energy efficiency upgrades keep the lights on for customers year-round.
More details on the innovations incorporated into the Cordova microgrid over the past few decades are summarized in this video, including the Power Creek run-of-the-river hydro project constructed in 2001. In a state where electric rates can exceed $1/kilowatt-hour, the cost of electricity in Cordova is comparable to what most U.S. citizens pay in the continental U.S.
Important Takeaways for the Global Microgrid Market
Here are four important lessons learned from Cordova’s journey toward sustainability:
- Co-ops Empower People. The transition from an investor-owned utility, to a municipal utility and finally
to Cordova Electric Cooperative showcases the power of the people. This evolution
allowed the utility to become more progressive and more closely reflect local values
like resilience and self-sufficiency through local management. The utility owners
voted in 1981 to deregulate and now have unprecedented freedom to accelerate the so-called
energy transition for Cordova. This is one of the reasons the utility has come so
far, so fast. With such an open system, individuals can have big impacts on small
- Moving from Reactive to Predictive Management. The transition from overhead to underground lines and from manual to automated power
plant operations allowed the cooperative to move from a reactive “fire drill” mode
of operations to hardened, reliable, and resilient energy delivery. Data collection
and archiving was perhaps the lowest cost, highest value lever that the cooperative
pursued in recent years to foster a more sustainable enterprise. These efforts set
the stage for the utility to continue to evolve toward a Smart City and ultimately
an interactive, transactive grid where customers themselves become part of the energy
supply and balancing solution.
- Incrementalism Equals Affordability. One exciting and overlooked aspect is how affordable the co-op made the transition
to a more sustainable system. The key was deploying new innovations strategically
and incrementally over time. This approach unlocked social value in a much more reliable,
safe, aesthetic, and environmentally responsible manner. It also supported their key
fishing industry, enabling Copper River Salmon to be recognized as the world’s best
in quality and sustainability. By minimizing the upfront price tag of creating a more
sustainable energy system, Cordova has been able to address broader community issues
without major rate increases or other costs that would negatively impact local economic
- Community Engagement and Collaboration. The Cordova Renewable Energy Working Group was created approximately 15 years ago when the first wave of ultra-high fossil fuel costs hit Cordova like an economic tsunami. It was a community collaborative formed by the Native Village of Eyak and Cordova Electric Cooperative that grew to include Cordova Schools, the Copper River Watershed Project, the U.S. Forest Service, the Prince William Sound Science Center, the City of Cordova, and other local institutions. A decision-making process known as a fishbone pareto helped identify a long list of community needs and opportunities. This process prompted a “divide and conquer” approach to solving the energy challenges Cordova was facing (see sidebar below) and brought the community together with a common vision. It allowed Cordova to move fast to reduce carbon emissions and costs through increased reliance upon renewable energy, penetration, and use efficiency and conservation as primary tools in the fight against costly fossil fuels.
Conclusion: Strength in International Knowledge Exchange
What all of the IPS Connect participants shared during the July meeting was a thirst to help their respective communities and industries lower costs and boost environmental value. Tours of Cordova’s two operating run-of-the-river hydro facilities and battery storage system showcased boots-on-the-ground problem solving and sparked numerous inspired discussions and debates. In the thick of its own iterative and adaptive journey towards greater sustainability, Cordova was a fitting location for a world-wide gathering on sharing lessons about isolated power systems.
The IPS Connect conference was an exercise in collaboration and an exchange of innovation and adaption. Speakers freely shared their lessons learned with partners and colleagues across the globe and drew on shared knowledge and resources to partner and innovate their way forward into the future. Particularly noteworthy lessons for Alaskans came from Australia, where many citizens rely upon similar remote microgrids for their electricity and basic infrastructure services, particularly in the western and northern regions of the country. Their maturity in some arenas – controls, battery energy storage, solar PV integration, for example – offer important lessons for Cordova and other remote Arctic communities. Meanwhile, Cordova’s maturities in other aspects of utility operations – such as underground and submarine cable-hardened distribution systems and hydropower and hybrid resource integration – helped advise not only participants from Australia, but from the Pacific Islands, Canada, and Greenland as well. Hopefully, IPS Connect is just one of many such gatherings that will stimulate additional discovery and accelerate the energy transition to a more secure and sustainable future.
Examples of Cordova’s Steps to Energy Sustainability
To foster energy innovation, get creative with bundling different sources of funding from federal, state and local levels. For example, Cordova Electric Cooperative was able to complete its Humpback Creek hydroelectric project (during an epic 48” of rain during a 3-day storm, no less) by leveraging partner revenue streams from State, FEMA, and self-funding. CEC also derived new revenues from renewable energy certificate sales (garnered through special exceptions negotiated for hydroelectric projects), tribal partnerships and the Energy Efficiency Community Block Grants through the America Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). These diverse sources of funding also financed the following:
- LED street lighting upgrades throughout the entire City of Cordova
- A wind resource assessment (and ultimately a wind turbine for the Cordova High School)
- Deployment of compact Fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs to all residential as well as industrial customers
- A coupon program for purchase of both CFL and LED bulbs through local businesses
- Recycling programs for CFLs to keep mercury out of an unlined landfill located on the Copper River delta
- Electronics recycling program
- Free EV charging stations
- A home weatherization program
- Vegetable oil heating of the local high school
- Energy efficient lighting retrofits at utility headquarters and the community hospital