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.

77 thoughts on “Making Electricity At The South Pole

  1. “There’s more here than you probably need to know”


    When has that ever stopped any of us? 🤓

    Anyway, fascinating stuff, and “brr” is such a brilliant pseudonym.

  2. “de-rated to 750 kW each due to the high altitude”. Latitude?

    Also a simple-minded approach would be to just run the generators at McMurdo and then run 1600km of cables to the south pole… Yes it’s quite a bit of cables but surely it would pay for itself in the long run. What am I missing here? :)

    1. Consider the difficulty in servicing 1600 km of power lines in a part of the world where the “ground” moves and where things keep getting buried beneath vast amounts of snow.

          1. According to a consensus of scientist they say “Global warming will take care of the extra snow.” They expect it to melt.

            TLDR: Anytime you hear a consensus of anything, that’s double speak for we are a Bull shit group giving a political option.

          2. No scientist expect the snow to melt on Antarctica. Ice is lost because it flows to the oceans in glaciers. The glaciers are moving faster due to climate change, despite still being below freezing point.

        1. Vast in this context means the precipitation falls on a whole continent and it doesn’t actually stay exactly where it falls. Ie, I live on a planet where wind can carry snow into snow-drifts and in Antarctica those can be the size of “mega-dunes” which consists of snow-dunes that are up to 3km in length and 2-4m high. And just like sand-dunes these dunes move with the prevailing winds.

          And that’s aside from the moving ice that cracks and creates huge crevasses, something that has accelerated due to climate change.

    2. Paying for itself depends on many things, but mostly reliability and maintenance costs.

      You want power reserves equal to your single biggest source. Especially if you’re on Antarctica. Likely why they have 3 smaller generators vs one bigun.

      Even if you had a transmission line, you’d need to maintain the gen sets. Not like the transmission line is going to be reliable in that weather.

    3. The glacier that the South Pole Station sits on moves 10 meters a year. With that the only time available to fix or maintain them would be in the summer months which is less than four months out of the year. So if the line gets broken in the winter and Pole loses power, 40-50 people could freeze to death. Emergency extraction is very dangerous for all parties and the planes that could fly in could only handle a small amount of passengers at a time.

      1. I do agree with most of what you’ve said, excepting the thing about the planes. The LC-130 can carry 40 tonnes at max takeoff weight, generously allow half of that to be fuel and you can still easily carry 40-50 people.

        1. except that IIRC the katabatic winds coming off the highlands prevent flying. Not all that long ago a daring rescue was made for medical reasons when conditions eased after a long delay, but flights are near impossible for periods of the year

    4. A cable of that length would have to be DC, for reactive power reasons. This would either need to have a converter station at the coastal power station and another at the base, or everything would need to be DC.

          1. No, you’re remembering right. Well, at least regarding the Coriolis force.

            The whole “toilet swirl” thing is a bit of a joke (at least… I hope people realize it’s a joke). You *can* get a water swirl direction to be influenced by the Coriolis force if you’re like, super careful – but it becomes next-to-impossible near the equator where the Coriolis force is super-weak.

            At the poles the Coriolis force is maximized, because, uh… you’re just spinning around in place so obviously when you throw something it’s going to look like it curls away.

    1. Solar has a LOT going for it at the south pole.
      24-hour sunshine for half the year, almost no clouds, lots of reflecting white surface to bounce light onto the panels, less light lost to the atmosphere due to the high elevation, and the efficiency boost got from operation at low temperatures. And you never even have to clean the panels because the air is so clean and the panels are almost vertical.

      And the peak (well, *only*) solar power happens exactly when the summer population increase happens and requires more power.

      It’s a win all around.

        1. “and the wind shreds them.”

          No, the main issue with panels at the South Pole is that you have to keep raising them. Not that big a deal though: panels power a ton of autonomous scientific stuff elsewhere and you can start off with them relatively high.

      1. “24-hour sunshine for half the year”

        It’s not *quite* that nice. It’s a really annoying solar tracker problem (one study said “an unconventional solar availability”). Yes, the Sun is above the horizon… but it never gets above 23.4 degrees elevation, and it spins fully around in azimuth every day. So you either need a *really* motorized panel (good luck with that in the cold!) or several of them pointed in multiple directions to capture it. Which, of course, makes it annoying to build an arbitrary sized array of them.

        It’s still totally doable, obviously – you’ve got plenty of space. If you take a look at the green energy feasibility studies, you end up basically with big arrays of widely spaced panels facing different directions. You end up needing about double the panels you might guess.

        Obviously as is noted there are still engineering challenges to figure out too, but that’s why the studies are happening!

      1. It’s… not completely out of the question. We’ve had a demo wind station, and there are turbine designs for Greenland that are hoped to deploy at South Pole. They are definitely a reliability concern when you’ve got temperatures that drop to -60 C or so.

        The idea for using it to power the station’s crazy, though. The turbines are for the planned experiments near Pole but not at the station. Personally I’d still cable it, but there are arguments for wind.

  3. Never too much information about south pole operations. Most stuff we learn about surviving there can be applied to Mars operations. Except, of course, for the lack of air, water, and sunlight on Mars, but those are just fine details. If Musk is serious about going to Mars, he’d have a team working out their power generation problems.

    1. >Except, of course, for the lack of air, water, and sunlight

      And the lack of local fuel sources or logistics to bring in more. It would be so much easier if there were oil anywhere on Mars like on Earth.

      1. With the right infrastructure, there could be plenty of fuels (not oil) on the moon that could be shipped to Mars way easier than people think. As long as you’re willing to wait a while for it to arrive.
        It ain’t as easy as throwing some fuel into a helicopter but it’s space, what can you do.

        1. Interesting use of the word “month”. It’s clear from context that you mean “half a Martian year”, but a month on Mars has even less sense than the customary months we use here on Earth.

    2. “Most stuff we learn about surviving there can be applied to Mars operations. ”

      Yeah, not really. It’s a research station. It’s not intended to be a standalone, independent environment. I mean, it’d be neat if you could make it self-sustaining, but it’s just not that important: you’re always going to have regular flights and traverses anyway.

      For reference, the majority of flights into Amundsen-Scott bring cargo/food/people, not fuel.

  4. Here’s the riddle:

    If it takes more than a gallon of fuel to transport a gallon of fuel, how do you transport the gallon of fuel to transport the other gallon of fuel? Surely that should also take another gallon of fuel…

    1. This is the rocket equation. That 1.33kg of fuel required to move 1kg of fuel is itself the sum of the fuel needed to move something, plus the fuel needed to move the fuel, plus the fuel needed to move the fuel needed to move the fuel… It’s an infinite sequence and there are situations where the sequence doesn’t converge and then you just can’t do it.
      Sure seems like a good place for a modern nuclear power plant.

      1. The lack of nuclear propulsion research since the mid-20th century has thoroughly embittered me to the idea of serious progress in manned space exploration. It is not going any further than this until we get over that taboo.

        1. Yeah, I wondered about that. Surely we know how to better design them against cracking these days. Was a follow-up reactor not considered just for political reasons? Or are there some fundamental hurdles yet to be solved regarding operating a nuclear reactor in such an environmental? In other words, would even the most advanced reactor in 2023 still suffer from cracks and leaks if operated in the polar climate?

          1. It’s just not that big a deal. You’ve got to transport buckets of resources there anyway (those LC-130s are transporting more than just fuel – like, say, people) and the efficiency gains from the overland traverse basically make it not a big deal. Note that the “it takes 1.33 kg of fuel to transport 1 kg of fuel” is only for the LC-130: delivering fuel via the traverse is significantly more efficient.

            There are pushes to try to “green up” the station, but solar panels and wind turbines make more sense because they also act to distribute power and you’re always going to have to bring resources anyway, so if you just need periodic generators to balance things, it’s not a big deal.

    2. No, the rocket equation works because the momentum change is proportional to mass loss, so hey, there’s your nice exponential.

      When you’ve just got a simple energy balance, it’s not exponential anymore: if it takes 1 gallon of fuel to transport X amount, it doesn’t mean 2 gallons to transport 2X, because there are energy efficiencies involved.

  5. This is indeed interesting from a locale perspective but otherwise a ridiculously complicated and inefficient method in this period. Makes me think if they can’t come up with a better and more reliable solution at this point in time then what’s the chances for sustaining life on another heavenly body?

          1. “Interesting” is subjective. There are interesting reasons to be doing stuff on Mars, for the right people.

            And for other people, there’s nothing interesting to be done at the south pole.

            Even if you use a payoff-based definition of “interesting”, there remain interesting things to do on Mars.

    1. “Makes me think if they can’t come up with a better and more reliable solution at this point in time”

      Huh? Why do you think this isn’t a reliable solution? It’s worked for decades.

      If your problem is with the inefficiency of transporting the fuel, it’s just not that big a deal. You already have to deliver tons of cargo and people to the stations anyway every year. It’s not intended to be an analog for living on Mars. It’s a research station.

  6. Nice! Thanks for posting. My brother was at Palmer Station on Anvers Island antarctica for a year in the 80’s as a generator/facilitiesmechanic. Similar setup though I think there were 2 main generators (much warmer on the palmer peninsula!). They were regular diesel, but it was so contaminated with water they had to run it through seperators before use. In the summer they assisted scientists with setting up tanks etc (pumps etc), and rebuilt the main generator. In the winter they waited for summer…. Craziest part was the trip down there from Argentina (or Chile, went in from 1 and out to the other) across the Drake passage, 40-50 foot swells in a 100’+wooden trawler, a round bottomed boat that listed ~40 degrees one way then the other for something like 3 days

    1. If you’re stuck in the toilet the door is not your immediate concern. How many walls does this bathroom have? Usually 4 tries and you’re out. One try if you have a … flashlight.

      “When you go swimming, don’t forget to bring a towel!”
      – – – Towelie

  7. Glycol system loop lets no heat source go to waste and heats everything.

    The bowl at the bottom of the world, everything spins around it. Push the handle, a polar vortex happens and the whole world goes down the black hole.

  8. I’m wondering: there’s a picture of a grounding bar, aggregating grounds from various locations. But how all this grounded to earth, considering that the whole base is located on the top of a thick moving ice sheet? Is ice sheet a suitable ground by itself?

    I was also wondering what the glycol lines/pumps are used for, but [echodelta] said that it is to transfer heat.

    I think i would love to try to work for a season in a french base over there in Antartica.

  9. The choice of 480/277V as a main distribution level sounds a bit strange to me, with a slightly lower level (400/230V, not much worse in terms of transmission loss) it would be possible to (pretty much totally) avoid the bulky transformer to 208/120V (and also save wiring cost from the transformer to the target power outlet). Given that 220/230V AC is used in large parts of the world (for example in Europe and most Asian countries) pretty much all equipment can easily be acquired in a 230V version, many devices nowadays even come with a wide range power supply and don’t need any adjustment at all.

  10. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This is truely one of the hidden gems of the internet. Something that everbody heard of and sometimes the science that happend there but never get an inside. Thank you Blog Poster for the Human view in your posts. Ass you written in some posts before, there will be no Post delivery for the next six Month (winter time), I wish you Merry X mas and a Happy New Year Brrr.

  11. We designed buoys for that area, using hydrogen fuel cells. Completely different from living there. Several failed this summer due to extreme colds. Sensors broke after going below -82C

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