In 2003, the Alaskan city of Fairbanks saw the installation of an impressive energy storage system.
Bigger than a soccer arena, it was recognized as the World’s Most Powerful Battery by Guinness World Records in 2005. The battery was Saft’s – but why was such a massive system needed and what were the challenges in building it?
In Fairbanks, Alaska, winter temperatures can fall below -50°C. In such conditions, water pipes can freeze solid in two hours, so a steady supply of electricity is crucial to the local population of around 90,000 people. However, this remote area is an ‘electrical island’ – meaning it has no grid connection to the rest of the US or Canada – and so has to be self-sufficient.
Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) is the main supplier to Fairbanks, using local electricity generation and power imported via a single transmission line from Anchorage. Before the battery system was built, consumers had their electricity cut off when a problem occurred: there was no spare capacity because of the high cost of generating power in this isolated region.
The frequent disconnections were becoming increasingly unacceptable to people living in this cold, harsh environment. GVEA investigated a number of potential solutions, eventually deciding on a battery energy storage system (BESS). After a rigorous selection process, GVEA joined forces with Saft and ABB to build it.
Saft’s mission was to create a powerful, long-lasting battery that could be easily monitored by GVEA, remaining safe and reliable at all times.
Saft manufactured an energy storage system that, in an emergency, can feed the power network with 25MW for 15 minutes. This is long enough to cover the time it takes for the city’s diesel back-up generators to activate and restore the power after a disturbance. The system can be expanded up to 40MW as needed. The battery’s Guinness World Record was achieved during commissioning, when the BESS was discharged at the full overload capability of 46MW for five minutes, earning it the title of the World’s Most Powerful Battery.
Guinness World Records apply the highest standards to measuring and verifying record attempts, to ensure only truly world-beating efforts qualify.
Since coming online, Fairbanks’ BESS has been able to reduce the number of power-supply outages by more than 60 percent. In 2015 alone, the system prevented a total of 320,446 consumer disconnections. The nickel-based battery system is also capable of withstanding seismic forces and has a lifecycle of at least 20 years, at the end of which Saft will recycle it.
A considerable challenge for the team was transporting a product of this size. The 13,760 cells making up the system were manufactured over 18 months at Saft’s Oskarshamn facility in Sweden, a long way from Alaska. To reach Fairbanks, they were shipped via 66 containers that had to stop in England then cross the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
Once there, they travelled by train to Tacoma and were loaded on to barges bound for Anchorage. This four-week journey required two trucks, three ships and one train.
Getting the enormous battery system to where it was needed wasn’t the only international aspect of the project; people from all over the world were involved in making the BESS project a reality. The 110 people who designed it included experts from the US, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the United Kingdom, Austria, India and Switzerland.
More than a decade later, this BESS continues to improve GVEA’s service and the lives of Fairbanks residents, reducing power outages and their potentially serious impact in this remote and harsh environment.