On the Utsteinen nunatak in the Dronning Maud Land of Eastern Antarctica, the planet’s last terrestrial frontier is being tamed by wind power. At the Princess Elisabeth Station, a Belgian-funded outpost manned by 20 scientists, research on global climate change has been ongoing since February 15. Primarily powered by eight 6 kW wind turbines, the facility itself aims to reduce the ecological footprint of humans on the unspoiled environment. While Antarctica may be pristine, it is by no means prissy. The station’s turbines are engineered to withstand Earth’s most extreme conditions: average winds are 53 mph, winter gusts can top 200 mph, and the temperature can fall below -60 C (-76 F), cold enough to turn conventional diesel to jelly. According to the turbines’ manufacturer, Proven Energy, Ltd, this system has the highest output yielded by a small wind power system in the world.
As reported in the Scientific American On-line article “Turbines Spin in Antarctica: Wind power comes to tundra research stations” by Mark Fischetti, the three-story Princess Elisabeth Antarctic station, built by the International Polar Foundation, also includes integrated solar thermal and photovoltaic panels to supplement the wind turbines. Solar thermal panels also provide water from snow melt, and microorganisms chew on shower and toilet water, allowing it to be used five times before being discarded.
According to a press release “Wind turbines set to break records in Antarctica” from Proven Energy, Ltd., using wind turbines to power Antarctic stations marks a major change from the conventional energy source of choice, diesel generators. Historically, diesel was used despite is pollution byproducts because wind turbines were thought to be too fragile for the Antarctic environment. However, previous Proven Energy installations have proven very robust, breaking world records for continued operation during ice storms in Slovenia, sand storms in Saudi Arabia, and typhoons in Japan. They have also produced electricity at the highest wind speeds of any turbine - 150mph in the Shetland Islands.
The choice to power Princess Elisabeth station with renewable sources is striking for two reasons. First, the installation’s intent is to measure climate degradation. Intentionally choosing non-polluting wind power states a meaningful commitment to sustainability. Second, despite all previous Antarctic stations running on diesel, powering remote outposts via wind is extremely practical. After all, fossil fuel is not native to Antarctica. No one is drilling for Antarctic oil (yet); there are no petroleum refineries on the continent; and each drop of fuel burned has to be transported in, making conventional stations totally dependent upon external supply chains for energy. Using locally available renewable sources in a frozen wasteland is a microcosm for what the rest of the world should be doing.