Week of March 2, 2009
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Going Totally Green in Antarctica
It's not easy being green, particularly in the frozen and unforgiving Antarctic. But Belgium's Princess Elisabeth Station has nailed that challenge in striking style, building the world's first polar base that runs solely on renewable energy.
by JACK LYNE,
Site Selection Executive Editor of
Location, location, location: It's the sine qua non of site selection . . . um, isn't it?
Then again, get a look at this site, a tract that a high-powered location team meticulously handpicked for a new research center: Temperatures outside the building plunge as low as minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius). What's more, fierce winds ravage the site, rattling the structure with knife-like gusts that ratchet up to 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour).
Welcome, then, to eastern Antarctica, home of Belgium's Princess Elisabeth Station, a US$26-million research facility that officially opened on Feb. 15. Sitting atop stilts like some giant, gleaming insect, the two-story, 4,889-sq.-ft. (440-sq.-m.) structure perches atop a rocky ridge on the Utsteinen nunatak, surrounded by absolutely nothing except a vast, frozen whiteness, stretching out unbroken, far as the eye can see.
"If it's possible to build a zero-emission facility in the extreme conditions of Antarctica, the same must be possible anywhere else in the world. All you have to do is want it."
- Alain Hubert, president of The International Polar Foundation
And yet this actually is the perfect location at least for this particular facility. Princess Elisabeth Station is housing an international team of cracker-jack researchers that's analyzing deep ice shelves, paying particular attention to the impact of global climate change.
But there's something even more striking about this Antarctic outpost: It's the first-ever polar base operating entirely on renewable energies, getting all its juice from solar and wind power.
"Green energy is not a question of reliability; it's a question of availability," says Alain Hubert, president of the International Polar Foundation (IPF), the Brussels-based private nonprofit organization that the Belgian government commissioned to design and build the facility. "Renewable energy is very reliable, but it is not always available; there are periods without wind and, in the Antarctic, seasons without daylight."
"This is why the Princess Elisabeth Station's location has been strategically chosen to be able to rely on either solar energy or wind energy, or on both," Hubert, author of the Princess Elisabeth Station project and chief engineer of site construction, explains during an interview from Brussels with the SiteNet Dispatch. "Furthermore, the station is equipped with batteries in which excess energy supply can be stocked and used later."
That summation, however, almost makes the process sound easy and of course it was anything but. At the same time, though, establishing a totally green facility in one of Earth's most inhospitable environments challenges the boundaries of what's possible, Hubert suggests:
"Constructing the first zero-emission research station in the Antarctic, despite its extreme climate and unfriendly weather conditions, is an achievement that goes to show that the necessary know-how and technology actually exist," he says. "If it's possible to build a zero-emission facility in the extreme conditions of Antarctica, the same must be possible anywhere else in the world. All you have to do is want it."
Wanting an über-green operation, though, is one thing. But constructing it in conditions totally alien to human life? That's quite another. And so the inevitable question: How the bloody hell did they build this thing?
Building inside 'This Pitiless Immensity'
Unsurprisingly, the Princess Elisabeth Station's birth wasn't remotely easy. Stretching out over a four-year span, the process was stuffed full of thorny complexities and adversities that, to most of us, are simply unimaginable.
But you can clearly feel that struggle in online postings from members of the 60-person construction team at the Utsteinen site. Written inside tents at the Antarctic base camp and posted on the station's official Web site, those entries occasionally read like urgent dispatches from a combat zone. In late January, for example, as the team feverishly labored to complete the Princess Elisabeth on schedule, IPF Vice President and project administrator Nighat Amin captured these powerful thoughts:
Five years earlier, the long, hard climb to create the Princess Elisabeth Station began. In 2004, the Belgian government decided to construct a new Antarctic research station. That venture would mark the nation's return to the continent for the first time since 1967, when it shut down the King Baudoin Station after that 10-year-old facility was swallowed up by snow and no longer safe for human habitation.
Launching the Venture with a Vow:
'No Damage to the Pristine Antarctic'
The new station's opening was timed to coincide with the International Polar Year (which actually extends over two years, from March 2007 to March 2009). And there was also a generous measure of Belgian pride riding on the project. In 1898, a team of Belgian explorers aboard the whaling ship Belgica became the first expedition to ever winter in the Antarctic. The Belgians underscored the national significance of the new Antarctic venture by naming it for Princess Elisabeth, the then-three-year-old granddaughter of Belgium King Albert II.
But the Belgians were also determined that their return to the South Pole would march to a different drummer. They decided, for example, that the Princess Elisabeth wouldn't solely rely on the government funding that bankrolls most polar stations. Instead, they set up a structure that would raise most of the investment through private sponsorships, forming a public-private partnership to operate the station. And the Belgians picked the private-sector IPF to run the project in the process accepting the foundation's bold proposal for a new polar station running exclusively on renewable energy.
"Belgium, one of the 12 original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, will not cause any damage to the pristine Antarctic environment," Hubert pledged. "This base will be the first of its kind to produce zero emissions, making it a unique model of how energy should be used in the Antarctic."
But first that model had to be built from scratch. And, from the outset, the IPF knew that it needed to build the structure twice.
Beginning to Build It Twice
The foundation began by constructing the Princess Elisabeth's modules, balancing hardy Antarctic-grade strength with environmental sensitivity. All the while, the building team was shooting at a moving target, using what IPF Project Manager Johan Berte calls an "evolving design." The team re-jiggered the blueprint as it went along, shaping the final structure to conform to a series of energy-efficiency simulations.
By early September of 2007, the IPF had completely constructed the Princess Elisabeth Station's outer core not in Antarctica, but inside the Tour and Taxis Exhibition Centre in Brussels, where citizens could look at it for four days.
"The pre-assembly served several purposes, including giving Belgium's general public the opportunity to see the station in person," Hubert explains. "Significantly, it also allowed the construction crew who will later rebuild it in Antarctica a trial run to see if everything fit properly."
"The pre-assembly further enabled us to make sure we had everything we could possibly need for the building in Antarctica," adds Berte. "There are no corner shops in Antarctica where we can just go and buy what we need in case we don't have something. Before we left, we had to make sure that we had every single bolt and screw we would need."
The IPF, however, still faced a tall order in a second-stage pre-assembly: perfecting and pre-assembling the station's core systems including the systems for ventilation, water treatment, and energy supply and management, plus the station's batteries, the systems' control unit and the interior fittings.
But for the station's outer structure, at least, the pre-assembly and testing were all done. So the project team broke down the shell in Brussels and packed it for the November 2007 shipping to Utsteinen.
By then, the station's Antarctic site had been thoroughly cased out. Beginning in 2004, Belgium mounted three long-term Antarctic expeditions during the austral summers, which stretch from November through February. Those months, when the Antarctic days are longest and warmest, are the only time it's safe to work outside.
The Belgians' three earlier expeditions had firmly set the stage for the station's final construction. The 2004-05 venture settled on Utsteinen as the location of choice, while the 2005-06 trip completed a site logistics survey. Then the 2006-07 expedition set down deeper roots, setting up the first of the wind turbines, as well as validating the overland route after unloading the first ship transport on the edge of the ice shelf. The team also installed an automated meteorological station on the Utsteinen site that collected more than a year's worth of weather data.
Hubert minces no words in describing that experience: "The logistics part of carrying out this operation is absolutely horrendous."
One of the sternest tests came in simply getting the facility's parts to the Antarctic site. Consider, for example, the laborious transportation logistics for the station's outer core:
Loaded aboard the Ivan Papanin, those parts arrived in Antarctica's Crown Bay on Dec. 21, 2007. The Russian ship docked as close as it could get to the Princess Elisabeth base camp but that was still 119 miles (190 km.) from Utsteinen. So the 120 containers of materials had to be unloaded onto the ice. From there, the parts were drug, piece by piece, over the frozen earth by three Prinoth Everest snow tractors, trailing long lines of sledges behind.
Each tractor's roundtrip from the ship to the station site took 40 hours, moving at an average speed of six miles (10 km.) per hour . It took 40 roundtrips to get all the containers to Utsteinen.
In total, that transportation stage alone consumed 1,600 hours of time. That huge and perilous allocation of resources underscores the Princess Elisabeth's savings from not having to haul in tons of fossil fuel.
"The cost-effectiveness of relying on renewable energy sources becomes evident after a few years' operation," says Hubert. "Renewable energy is free, while fossil fuels are very expensive to send to remote Antarctica."
Another logistical ordeal stands out in Hubert's memory: "One of the most difficult obstacles that we encountered in construction came in drilling the six-meter-deep (20-feet-deep) holes in the frozen granite rock," he says. "Those holes were very important, serving as the anchoring points for the station. And the actual drilling was very complex, since we discovered that the rock was not monolithic. It was a pile of huge blocks that had to be secured together!"
The team had already completed topographic studies on the granite ridge. Advance preparation had further forearmed the builders. They'd already mounted the metal struts holding up the station during the pre-assembly in Belgium. That "homework" paid off, Hubert notes. "The station's anchoring points ended up being more precise in Utsteinen than at Tour and Taxis," he says.
Despite the myriad logistical obstacles, the Antarctic team stayed on schedule during the austral summer of 2007-08. By the time they left in March of 2008, the station's outer core was fully complete, including a separate 1,167-sq.-ft. (105-sq.-m.) garage to house snow mobiles, snow movers and other equipment.
'Not a Single Whining Remark'
Back in Brussels, the IPF in October of 2008 finished the last piece of the pre-assembly, completing the station's core after four months of work.
"The assembly of the core systems in Belgium prior to their integration into the station in Antarctica served several purposes, including checking the systems' fitting inside the confined space," says Berte. "It also allowed us to measure the equipment energy loads and test the energy management protocols. And it provided a trial run for the construction crew and engineers from Schneider Electric and Laborelec who would re-assemble the systems in Antarctica."
Even so, the core systems' final installation during the 2008-09 austral summer couldn't avert a large, and indigenous, logistical snag. In late January of this year, a major storm ripped through the station base camp a bare-bones operation consisting of only a tent hospital, a mess tent, a washroom and office, and individual tents for each team member. IPF Vice President Amin vividly described the crippling on-site conditions in a post:
It's particularly cool in light of the ultimate outcome. The violent storm forced the postponement of some work, but the team made up the time. The Princess Elisabeth Station still opened right on schedule.
Inside the completed Princess Elisabeth Station, conditions are decidedly more agreeable than the ones that the construction team endured.
Seasonal Cycles Between Solar and Wind
"The temperature inside the station will run around 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit)," says Hubert. "And that's without having to use any heating device during the summer months.
"During that period," he explains, "the heat inside the station comes from the heat released by human occupation, plus the heat released by the core systems, which have been strategically placed in the station's center. The station is also heated by passive solar gain, a technique optimized by the building's layout and window arrangement."
The polar station's use of solar energy may surprise casual observers, who perceive the Antarctic as a land of perpetual darkness. In point of fact, though, the Antarctic summers' long days provide a wealth of solar energy. With the summer sun reflecting off the snow, a solar panel in the Antarctic can capture enough energy in one season to rival the energy that a panel would catch during an entire year at some European locales.
"The solar photovoltaic panels will be able to provide one-third of the station's electricity needs during the summer season, when the sun shines close to 24 hours a day," Hubert notes. "Antarctica then gradually moves into total darkness during the winter time, when the station's nine wind turbines will have to supply the station's entire electrical needs. The station's total electrical capacity therefore varies between the summer and the winter."
The fluctuating power capacity in turn affects the station's staffing capacity, he explains. In the summer, the facility can handle up to 48 people, while in the winter it can only house about a dozen.
The Princess Elisabeth Station also has 333 sq. ft. (30 sq. m.) of solar thermal panels installed on its roof.
"Those panels serve a number of the station's needs, including heating the snow and providing drinking water," says Berte. "The panels also heat the water for the station's warm water requirements, including showers, the kitchen and the washer. In addition, the solar thermal panels are used to raise the water treatment unit's bioreactors to a given temperature, which enables the recycling of wastewater."
With the Princess Elisabeth Station triumphantly finished and in operation, the IPF's leaders are hoping that the project will become a prototype for all future Antarctic polar stations. At the very least, though, they are hoping that their experience will expand the realm of what's truly "feasible" in actual practice.
"There is one key lesson that I think we have learned in the process of building a carbon-free operation in such a challenging environment," says Berte. "And that lesson is: If you really want something, it can always be achieved . . . even when you think it is impossible."
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