Powering the Future

In small, off-the-road system Cordova, Clay Koplin is a global leader in the clean energy revolution.

Man standing in front of a power generator.
Clay Koplin at Cordova Electric Cooperative.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Clay Koplin was among a team of people packed into a mechanical room at the Cordova Community Medical Center, the sole hospital in this remote southcentral Alaska community, which is accessible only by air or sea. Koplin is the CEO of Cordova Electric Cooperative (CEC), the electric utility that services the hospital and the rest of this 2,600-person coastal community. All eyes that morning were on a smaller-than-a-breadbox gadget sitting next to the gray metal compartment that holds the hospital’s electrical circuits. The gadget was a micro phasor measurement unit, or micro PMU, which would allow the hospital and CEC to collect data on every rise and fall in the hospital’s power usage. 

The micro PMU is one example of the way that CEC — with Koplin at the helm — is leading the way to a full transition to renewable energy and to a smart power grid, and one example of the way Koplin is a leader in microgrids worldwide. But the transition hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t happened all at once.

Cordova is located on the traditional homelands of the Eyak people. Situated at the southeastern edge of Prince William Sound, the region boasts extraordinary natural resources, rich commercial fisheries, and abundant wildlife. The community also has one of Alaska’s oldest microgrids, which was established in 1907 with the installation of a Pelton wheel in a nearby creek. But as the community shape-shifted from a mining hub to one of the most important commercial fishing ports in the state, so too has its energy portfolio. By the 1940s, the community’s power was coming mainly from diesel generators, which could provide reliable, around-the-clock electricity regardless of changes in water flow. The switch to diesel necessitated regular fuel deliveries, leaving the community at the whim of global petroleum pricing and the weather. During at least one spell of rough seas, diesel had to be flown in.

Koplin is a homegrown energy leader who saw early on how far the electricity industry could take him when he watched his father fly across Alaska as an airport electrician for the State. Koplin earned a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and soon after, became a staff engineer at the electric cooperative on Kodiak Island. The island’s utility was large enough to have its own engineer, Koplin explained, but small enough, he said, “that you got to touch everything.” 

When Koplin arrived in Cordova in 1998 to serve as the manager of engineering and operations, the community’s electricity situation was dismal. Power poles were rotting. Residents were facing near-weekly power outages. Steel equipment was rusting in the region’s drenched maritime climate. And CEC “didn’t have two pennies to rub together,” Koplin explained.

Cordova from the air.

But Koplin sensed promise. CEC formed in the late 1970s when Cordova residents took over electricity management from the city. Ratepayers owned the utility, which means that all Cordova residents have a voice to shape its future. In CEC’s early days, ratepayers had implemented a policy to bury all the utility’s power lines. Koplin had become a devotee of underground distribution after his experience in Kodiak; weather and environmental conditions were just too volatile in Alaska’s coastal communities to string lines in the air. Buried lines also didn’t disrupt Alaska’s spectacular scenic beauty. And for complex technical reasons, underground lines could bring extra efficiencies too.

“They didn’t like the idea of being one fuel delivery from having the lights out,” he said.

The utility was also just breaking ground on a new hydroelectric generation plant, the Power Creek Hydroelectric Project, when Koplin joined CEC. The goal of the project was to significantly alleviate the community’s dependence on diesel. It had only been ten years since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which left devastating environmental, social, and cultural scars in the region. But even before this blaring example of the tragedies that can result from petroleum reliance, the community was prioritizing energy independence, Koplin said. “They didn’t like the idea of being one fuel delivery from having the lights out,” he said.

The Power Creek hydroelectric project came online in 2002 and today, hydroelectric generation provides about 75% of the community’s power. The benefits of this shift to renewables have been many-fold. Koplin estimates that the project has saved CEC $50 million in diesel costs to date. In addition, cheap, reliable electric service encouraged the local seafood industry to invest in the community, helping to drive a regional fishing industry worth more than $100 million. 

But the challenges of delivering clean, reliable power to remote communities in Alaska are substantial. According to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, over the past 8 years, 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, and massive snow storms that led to avalanche threats to CEC’s infrastructure. And while the community’s grid is small — only 900 residences and a handful of commercial and government users — Cordova experiences wild swings in energy usage as the electrical demand triples in the summer when the commercial fishing industry kicks into high gear. Complicating matters is the fact that run-of-the-river hydropower facilities like Power Creek, which harness the natural current of a river rather than using a dam, provide variable power that rises and falls with environmental conditions.

In a model to small communities worldwide, CEC is meeting these demands with creativity and by leveraging what Koplin refers to as “fierce partnerships.” Working with the Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, in 2019, CEC installed a cutting edge battery storage system to help stabilize Cordova’s microgrid. The system smooths out ups and downs in the power supply and, in the event of an emergency, the batteries can provide enough energy to power the local hospital for ten hours.  

Koplin has led the community in promoting efficiency and conservation as well. CEC retrofitted Cordova’s street lights to LED and gave ratepayers credits towards the purchase of LED bulbs. In addition, CEC has been working to catalyze electrification of the entire community by installing free electric vehicle (EV) charging stations close to downtown and developing an incentive program for local businesses to install their own.

Cordova is a leader in innovation among utilities in Alaska, and the state, in turn, is a global leader in independent, renewable power networks. Alaska has nearly one-sixth of the world’s hybrid microgrids, microgrids that are at least partially powered by renewables. These small, local power systems are vital for the global shift to renewable energy as they can be more nimble when it comes to incorporating zero-emission energy sources, can operate more efficiently and strategically, and can be more resilient in the face of natural disasters and other threats.  

Being a global energy leader requires constant learning. Koplin recently earned a Master of Business Administration, a degree that enabled him to dig into the big-picture financial forces that shape the energy industry. He used these insights to bring novel financial management to CEC, restructuring CEC’s financial portfolio, allowing the utility to pay down its debt, increase its equity to more than 50%, and send capital credits to ratepayers.

The micro PMU is an example of the ways Koplin has led CEC in developing creative approaches to energy management where off-the-shelf solutions don’t exist. The data captured by the device will help the hospital and CEC make strategic energy decisions, such as which circuits to prioritize in the case of an emergency outage. Koplin knows of no other grid in the country surgically shutting down parts of its grid on a meter-to-meter basis in the event of a power disruption.

Man standing in the doorway of a construction trailer.

“We’re on the leading edge here,” he said.

Koplin, who has been the utility’s CEO for 15 years, is looking ahead to important next steps. The utility is working to develop an energy storage dam nearby to create a bulk storage reservoir of clean energy, which would further reduce reliance on diesel and ratchet up Cordova’s energy diet to as much as 100% renewables. Koplin is also exploring vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging capabilities whereby EVs can be charged from CEC’s system and then feed power back into the microgrid when they’re not in use. And he’s pioneering ways to shift excess heat from the utility’s diesel generators to heat community facilities like Cordova’s public swimming pool. “We’re on the leading edge here,” he said. 

Koplin isn’t keeping Cordova’s innovations to himself. He serves on the Federal Electricity Advisory Committee for the Office of Electricity, a department within the U. S. Department of Energy on energy policy, and was recently appointed to Alaska’s new Energy Security Task Force. He has traveled globally to share his experience and presented to Congress, the Arctic Circle Assembly, and the World Energy Council. Koplin has been featured on Japanese primetime television and the BBC. Cordova now hosts energy conferences each year that attract participants from around the world. When a scientist from a leading federal research laboratory toured Cordova’s power system, he marveled. “We’re trying to develop this in the lab,” Koplin recalled him saying, “but you guys out here in the boonies are already doing it.”

Koplin’s leadership on energy in Cordova has earned him a tremendous amount of local support. He termed out after two terms as Cordova’s mayor from 2016 – 2022, an especially challenging post during the pandemic. Serving as mayor, Koplin explained, helped him get a more global view of community needs beyond the electric grid. This raven’s eye view of things shapes how Koplin thinks about delivering electricity. “I call it ‘the power of AND,’” he said. Energy decisions, he explained, should meet utility needs and community needs. His work, then, is not just about providing electricity, it’s about “raising the social equation,” he explains, taking into consideration the environment, public safety, recreation opportunities, workforce development, and other factors during development of an energy project. When Koplin and CEC consider new initiatives, “We don’t think of it as just building a big hydroelectric project. We think of it as making a big community investment.”

Few places on Earth are better equipped to power and accelerate the climate transition than Alaska. AVF is advancing this transformation by working with on-the-ground partners, such as Clay, to mobilize resources and the expertise necessary to realize Alaska’s clean energy potential. To learn how you can support this work, contact our Energy Transition Program Director . To connect with Clay directly about his work in Cordova, you can reach him here.

Clay Koplin is CEO of Cordova Electric Cooperative, Inc. (CEC), a remote, islanded microgrid system in Southcentral Alaska. Clay is a professional electrical engineer and he currently serves on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity’s Advisory Committee and is a past mayor of Cordova. 

Words by Miranda Weiss. Miranda is a science and nature writer and the author of ‘Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska’. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist, The American Scholar, Alaska Dispatch News and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Homer.

Photos by David Little. David is an award-winning photographer who lives and works in Cordova, and is continuously inspired by the beauty of Prince William Sound. His photographs have appeared in magazines, books and in online articles.

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