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Water Today Title May 30, 2024

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Update 2020/2/24
Renewable energy


By Suzanne Forcese

The earth’s tides, waves, ocean currents and free-flowing rivers contain an untapped, powerful, highly-concentrated and clean energy source. Harnessing that power to wean a small Alaskan remote community from diesel fuel is proving to be a successful pilot project. Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) Canada is moving forward with replicating that success in Canada’s remote communities.

WaterToday reached out to Alexandre Paris, CEO of ORPC in Montreal.

“I grew up in Africa,” Paris told WT explaining how that experience has given him the edge in understanding the necessity to respect the governance and traditional practices of our Canadian remote communities. “I liked ORPC’s philosophy and decided to be part of the team. The company approach, based on developing the essential strategic partnerships within each community and respecting their uniqueness, was the mantra of co-founder and inventor Christopher Sauer.”

Remote communities do not have the infrastructure to generate electricity and their reliance on diesel fuel and its transportation is not only costly but also environmentally hazardous.

In a pilot project partnership that began in 2013, the ORPC team is proving that dependence on diesel fuel consumption can be offset -- if not removed entirely -- while simultaneously providing a sense of ownership, pride and self-sufficiency to the residents of the community.

This process is evolving in the Village of Igiugig, Alaska, where diesel fuel had to be flown in at a cost of $7 USD / gallon. That was $15,000 to supply the population of 70 permanent residents in one year.

Remote Alaskan villages provide challenging but ideal conditions to pioneer a new technology. If a project can reduce energy costs in an emission-free process in this environment without threatening the environment, then it passes the grade.

WaterToday had the privilege of speaking with AlexAnna Salmon, President of the Tribal Council of the Village of Igiugig, whose voice resonates with the values of the Igyaramiut (the residents of Igiugig). “Since time immemorial our people survived this merciless homeland by inventing or adapting to new technologies then redefining them to the highest efficiency. We perpetuate this way of life.” The Igyaramiut are known for their cultural, environmental and value-centred life.

AlexAnna Salmon was a high school student when the topic of ‘Renewable Energy’ dominated the Bristol Bay village’s conversation under the leadership of her father, the late Dan Salmon. The pristine Kvichak River, the life- blood of the community, was providing “the best drinking water on earth”, and the world’s largest population of salmon. Why not also convert the river’s energy into electricity?

Igiugig, meaning “like the throat that swallows water” in the Yup’ik language, sits at the head of the Kvichak River with its turquoise waters rushing out of Iliamna Lake and past the village with such force that a freeze event is rare.

When the death of her father brought her back home from earning her dual Bachelor’s Degree in Native American Studies and Anthropology at Dartmouth College, the Igiugig Tribal Village Council asked AlexAnna Salmon to be President and Project Director.

Determined to work with the river’s power to gain independence from diesel fuel and its inherent threat to the environment, Salmon began the long and disappointing journey to receive government financial assistance in 2007.

“It was 20 years of community planning to pursue hydrokinetic potential and we finally received $2.7 M but it wasn’t enough. We then decided to provide all the work necessary to a company that was willing to pilot a project with us. That is when we connected with ORPC.”

In 2014, ORPC successfully built, deployed, and operated its RivGen® Power System, delivering electricity to Igiugig’s diesel microgrid. In 2015, ORPC re-installed and operated the RivGen system with the latest technology advancements and in the process reduced the community’s diesel fuel use by one-third when the system was operating.

Simply stated, Paris explains, “Just like wind powers turbines to generate power, in the case of the RivGen, it is the movement of the water’s current that turns the turbines to generate electricity which is then cabled to existing infrastructure on land. Unlike a hydro-dam where water has to be diverted and fish sacrificed, there is minimal disturbance to the environment.”

Yes. The fish. The Kvichak River serves as a highway for millions of salmon in spring. Young salmon migrate to the ocean. A few months later, older salmon swim back to where they were hatched in Lake Iliamna to spawn. This gift of nature has provided the village with sustainability and a livelihood.

“We had four video cameras set up to monitor fish activity,” Paris told WT. The clear waters of the river made this possible. “What we discovered was the fish weren’t interested. The RivGen sits at the bottom of the river and the fish swim in the top half metre or so of the water. Fish like to swim where the current is the least. We like to put our device where the current is the strongest. We are happy to report that after hundreds of hours of data, not a single injury or mortality to marine or aquatic life has been observed.”

“We would not have gone ahead with the project if there was even the remotest chance that our salmon would be harmed,” AlexAnna Salmon adds.

RivGen® device deploying to riverbed. Igiugig, Alaska, 2019. Courtesy ORPC

“Although the Kvichak River does not normally freeze over there was a frazil ice event this winter,” Salmon continues. “This was another of our concerns. But there was no issue.” According to Paris that is also due to the placement of the device at the bottom of the river.

Now that RivGen has passed the two biggest tests it is on to the next phase of the project. “In 2020 we will be deploying a smart microgrid system and energy storage. A second RivGen device will be installed in the Kvichak River in 2021 to provide sustainable, baseload power to the community.”

The thriving village with its commercial greenhouses and award-winning recycling program is set to become a world model for remote communities as they gain their diesel fuel independence.

What is most rewarding for the community is summed up in Salmon’s words, “We have taken ownership from start to finish.” It is a testament to the mission of ORPC “to seek guidance from community partners well before the project begins, to provide training opportunities, to employ local barge and vessel crew, local safety and environmental crews, power station operators and other local vendors, contractors and housing services.”

Moving forward, Paris told WT, “Our next stop is Winnipeg where we will be meeting with a team from the University of Manitoba and First Nations Chiefs to explore all the scenarios for a deployment in the Winnipeg River.”

AlexAnna Salmon’s pride in what her community’s achievement is echoed in the words of wisdom she shares with all remote communities.

“We are self-sufficient. We collectively invested in our partnership with ORPC and all decisions are local. My advice to other communities is to take ownership. Once you are invested, you hand off in a different way. Find a true partnership that values your community values – one that is not going to abandon you. But most of all take ownership.”



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