Making Electricity At The South Pole

Making Electricity At The South Pole

In case you’ve ever wondered how the South Pole research stations are powered, then a recent blog post, South Pole Electrical Infrastructure by anonymous IT engineer [brr] is for you. Among the many issues covered, let’s look at how the electricity is made and, spoiler alert, how the specially formulated AN8 fuel blend is transported to the generators.

The main source of power is a trio of Caterpillar 3512B diesel generator sets, de-rated to 750 kW each due to the high altitude and the special fuel mixture. Unsurprisingly, all the fuel must be imported to Antarctica, a horribly inefficient endeavor. Fuel arrives initially at McMurdo Station harbor by tanker ship. From there, it can be sent to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in one of two ways. The Lockheed LC-130 is a modified C-130 Hercules cargo plane developed in the 1950s specifically to support polar operations. It is the least efficient method, consuming 1.33 kg to transport 1 kg of fuel. Alternatively, fuel can be dragged by tractors via the South Pole Overland Traverse (SPoT), a 1600 km highway over compacted snow and ice. The trek takes about 40 days and only consumes 0.56 kg of fuel for every 1 kg, which is much better than air.

Really the only thing interesting about the electrical grid here is how uninteresting it is. The majority of what I’ve written here could apply to any commercial facility or small generating plant, anywhere in the United States. It’s only interesting because of where it’s used.

World’s Southernmost Flush Toilet Inside the Power Plant

Besides using diesel-electric generator sets, other approaches to making power are/have been used. A nuclear station was in operation from 1962 to 1972 but was shut down for safety reasons after developing cracks and leaks. The Ross Island Wind Farm has been operating for over ten years and will soon be upgraded.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg — [brr] describes how fuel is stored on-site, the electrical distribution system, and various emergency measures that keep everyone alive and warm when things go wrong.

There’s more here than you probably need to know, but it is a fascinating description complete with explanatory photographs and links to supporting research papers. Check it out if you are at all interested in operations in extreme and unforgiving climates.

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