The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is partnering with the National Science Foundation to illustrate the usefulness of renewable energy in the most extreme climate conditions on Planet Earth. While summer reigns supreme in North America, faraway American outposts hibernate in the undying dark of an Antarctic winter. There, wind energy systems are currently helping to power research stations by capturing energy embedded in the polar winds. In the polar summer, when Antarctica trades endless night for endless sunshine, solar panels will take their turn.
Several stations, both American and international, are utilizing wind and solar power systems in the Antarctic. They are now in the testing phase, but positive results could lead to widespread use of renewable energy to power polar outposts, which currently get their power through extremely expensive shipments of diesel fuel.
The largest system creating energy at present is a 1-megawatt wind farm near McMurdo Station, the primary hub for U.S. operations on the White Continent. The base shares the wind power with Scott Base, a nearby outpost operated by New Zealand. It is not the first wind farm on Antarctica, but it is the southernmost installation in the world, and the largest in Antarctica.
The wind farm will supply 20 percent of the power for both bases and eliminate the need for 125,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually. At roughly $33 per gallon, those are some hefty financial savings, not to mention the estimated 1,242 tons of carbon dioxide it offsets as well.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
The relatively new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is another test site for renewable technologies. The state-of-the-art $153-million facility was originally designed to include an integrated photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof, but construction delays and a tight budget forced the abandonment of that project.
On top of that, weather conditions at the Amundsen-Scott station are extremely challenging. While the McMurdo base is near the relatively mild coast, this station is buried 800 miles inland, where the high temperature in summer tops out around -20 degrees Fahrenheit. It sits at 10,000 feet above sea level on an ice cap roughly 2 miles thick.
Nevertheless, NREL and the NSF are not giving up on renewable energy at Amundsen-Scott. The integrated rooftop solar system is most likely a thing of the past, given the incredible difficulty of a retrofit under such extreme conditions. Instead, NREL is focusing on a small outcropping of Quonset huts a few hundred yards away that serve as dormitories when the station’s population soars in the summer months. There, the plan is to integrate PV panels into the rooftops of new huts that could be started in 2012. Solar thermal technologies may also be tested and computer models have been drawn up that incorporate passive solar space heating as well.
But those won’t be the first solar panels installed. Six PV modules are already being tested at the site, along with a small 2.3-kilowatt wind turbine. The importance of testing before leaping is tantamount to success, as such harsh conditions demand extra precautions. Indeed, the metals found in typical solar panels could become brittle and shatter in the fierce cold, destroying the system. Therefore, solar panels and wind turbines must be built to withstand powerful winds and brutal cold, even when the sun is shining 24 hours a day.
Testing of wind turbines will continue for one more year, while testing on the PV modules will collect data for at least two more years.
The Antarctic Eco-Standard
In the end, these and future renewable energy systems will help the U.S. comply with strict international standards regarding the environmental impact of activities on Antarctica. The U.S. and 46 other nations have signed the Antarctic Treaty, which declares the continent a “reserve for science and peace,” according to the NREL. As part of that treaty, countries are obligated to “limit adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment.”
Such energy projects on Antarctica also serve as symbols and proof of renewable power sources. “If wind and solar energy systems can work in Antarctica, then certainly they should work in places like Kansas,” said Ian Baring-Gould, senior mechanical engineer for NREL and leader of the laboratory’s work in polar environments.
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