Will and I were lucky enough to travel to Alaska last month with his family and visit several amazing national parks. Denali was probably the coolest (grizzly bears! caribou! huge mountains!) but I also was super impressed by the Kenai Fjords National Park with its coastal glaciers. It’s pretty humbling being next to a giant river of ice and to watch an immense chunk break off with a loud “CRACK” and fall into the ocean. Amazing.
While we loved the wildlife and the beautiful landscapes, we also enjoyed seeing all the ways the parks strive to be green, including quite a few renewable energy technologies. It seemed like every building (even the outlying bathroom structures) had a solar panel on it. Eielson Visitor Center, deep into the tundra of Denali National Park and with spectacular views of Mt McKinley, was the most impressive and is a LEED platinum building. It’s essentially built into a hill with tundra plants growing on the roof to help it blend even further into the landscape. One of their challenges (and motivations) is that there is no electric grid available 66 miles into the park. So, the building uses several different energy sources (solar panels, hydroelectric generator in a nearby stream, and small propane generator) and was designed for maximal passive heating and lighting. One advantage they have is that the center is only open for four summer months (June – September) because it is snowed in the rest of the year.
We happened to visit on the summer solstice, when the official sunrise was at 3:45 AM and official sunset was at 12:21 AM the next day (a 20 hour 36 minute day) but it never got truly dark – just dusk-like. You can generate a lot of electricity from solar panels on a sunny day in that part of the world! However, they also have a lot of cloudy days so it has been an experiment to see how solar electricity and solar hot water work for the center. I think it’s awesome that the parks are able to try out different technologies and do the best they can to have a minimal impact on some of the best natural landscapes in our country.
In Kenai Fjords, I snapped a quick picture of an electric car driven by the rangers. I expect it makes a lot of sense for traveling between their two visitor centers that are about fifteen miles apart over flat paved roads (as opposed to driving through the backcountry). We are still intrigued by the idea of getting an electric car for our household since so much of the driving we do is short distances on city streets with low speed limits. However, it doesn’t look like it will bubble up to the top of the priority list anytime soon. I guess we’ll let the parks work out all the kinks and then we’ll adopt the refined version.