The Challenges and Opportunities of an Energy Paradigm Shift

By Jake MacArthur Over the past few months, I have worked to deliver fuel to the National Science Foundation’s Summit Station in Greenland via overland transport. The fuel is currently being dragged across the icecap on plastic sleds. We staged our operations out of the Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland. My vocation is the pursuit of energy efficiency and renewable energy. The following are some reflections on energy management in Thule.

Managing a robust and dependable energy supply in the high Arctic is a significant challenge. Transport to the region is intermittent, significant storage critical and frigid temperatures a constant threat. Traditional cultures have surmounted these challenges largely by not using energy, aside from constantly maintaining a subsistence food source. Modern encampments in the high Arctic, however, have not adapted to subsistence ways, but have instead carved out a system that functions reliably.

In places such as Thule, such reliability has come at a cost. The energy budget is huge and even the small Air Force base of approximately 500 people has a remarkable yellow layer of smog over it on calm days. The smog comes from combusted diesel (actually JP8) fuel. The fuel powers the electric grid and heat supply and runs the vehicles shuttling soldiers and contractors to their jobs. As defense budgets tighten, I wonder whether a more efficient system might not only save the base’s bottom line but also drastically reduce its impact on this fragile environment.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, a number of opportunities also exist:
  • The current diesel electric generators complement renewable energy very well – they can respond rapidly to shifts in demand or renewable production.
  • Decisions are unilateral. The commanding colonel may not have complete control of decision making in this regard, but the US Air Force does.
  • The host Danish government generally supports renewable energy, and a shift would enhance the future relationship.
Nonetheless, there are many specific barriers to incorporation of renewable energy:

  • Short term budgets. Despite rapid paybacks and strong rates of return, the appetite for capital projects is very limited.
  • Uncertain future. All military bases are subject to changing politics, host-country cooperation and shifting strategy. These further inhibit capital investment.
  • Competing infrastructure needs. The Thule base has numerous other infrastructure needs and the current power system provides reliable power.
  • Retraining incumbent workers. Institutional knowledge and operational capability in the cold takes significant human investment. Launching new systems will require additional investment in retraining and retaining operations staff.
  • The cold. Photovoltaics work well in the cold but are seasonal and do not best match the winter time loads and have longer payback horizons. The wind resource is high quality but operating and maintaining turbines in -50 F temperatures is difficult at best and largely unknown.
Overall, these hurdles are similar to the ones that many businesses and governments face. Whereas some challenges (e.g., the cold) are more extreme, the opportunities and advantages such as the avoided fuel cost are greater. Ultimately, settlements such as the Thule Air Force Base need a strong leadership vision and comprehensive energy planning. They also need popular local support for these concepts as new systems will require not only investment and construction but effort to retrain for and service new equipment.

Jake MacArthur is part of the team that created the CleanCar Calculator.
You can find additional photos and videos on Jake's blog: The Yeti Diaries