Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Polar Careers: Tracy Dahl, Polar Field Services’ Renewable Energy Specialist

Self portrait: Tracy Dahl documents a rare sunny day on the Alaskan tundra. All photos courtesy Tracy Dahl.

Like many who work at the poles, Polar Field Services’  (PFS) Tracy Dahl has taken a circuitous path to arrive at his current position. As PFS’s technical specialist in renewable energy, Dahl has circled the globe, consulted myriad experts and books, designed and built renewable energy contraptions in his work shop and then installed them in the world’s harshest outdoor laboratories.

The Fossil Fuel Dilemma

Throughout his career, he’s been driven by a passion to help ease human reliance on fossil fuels, which he blames for creating a major disconnect between humans and the environment. But rather than bemoan the status quo (a fossil fuel economy), Dahl strives to change it—one photo voltaic array at a time.

“Renewable energy is about manipulating the environment, or at least learning how to harvest it,” says Dahl. “It’s about learning how to adapt to the environment and use what the world has to offer in a benign way, rather than imposing a resource-intensive system upon it.”

Dahl spends much of the field season in Alaska and Greenland installing generators that run off of wind and sun in remote study plots. These systems allow scientists to  run long-term mechanical equipment without contributing to pollution. This keeps their sites clean and, given the longevity of the systems, cuts down on the number of trips scientists need to make to their plots. This reduces emissions and saves money.

Home Life

At home, Dahl strives to live a low-impact life. He grows his own food at his off-the-grid abode in southern Colorado’s mountains at 8,200 feet, works from a home office, rarely drives and powers his life with energy from the sun.

“I checked my carbon footprint online, and my house was nothing, driving was minimal,” says Dahl. “But when I do commute, I go a long way.”

He says he’s never felt compelled to conform to social norms and has been happier pursuing his own interests. These include collecting rainwater to irrigate high-alpine gardens, building the straw-bale home he shares with his wife, Amy, or camping on the ice or tundra.

"Why I Work." Dahl says of his wife Amy (here with family dog, Lars): "Not only is Amy far more photogenic than I, she is also a former PFS employee and polar explorer. She's wisely decided to hang up her mukluks to concentrate on developing our homestead."

Life Choices

His passion for finding renewable energy solutions has led the wanderlust traveller on an adventurous path with stints as a motorcycle mechanic and jobs in remote field camps in Antarctica and the Arctic. As he’s carved out a niche, he’s also learned essential survival skills like how to stay warm and well fed in temperatures that plunge below zero degrees. Forgoing the comforts of fossil fuels does not mean suffering, says Dahl.

“Independence is important to me,” says Dahl. “I have always felt like I should be able to take care of myself. I like that I can go into a polar environment and not just survive but live comfortably.”

Heading South

Dahl got his start at the South Pole in 1994 when he was hired as a snowmobile mechanic at a research station in Antarctica. Although he had only ridden a snowmobile once previously, his experience as a motorcycle mechanic convinced the hiring manager Dahl could do the job. After several seasons, Dahl worked his way up to running the Mechanical Equipment Center until he was offered a job as the first antarctic renewable energy specialist in the 1999/2000 season. It was a dream assignment.

Abundant Resources

“The first year I went to Antarctica, I got off the plane, and there was a brilliant sun in the sky reflecting off the brilliant snow,” says Dahl. “The wind was howling, and I thought, ‘why aren’t there solar panels and wind turbines everywhere? What is wrong with this picture?'”

Back then, polar researchers only had a choice of what size engine generator they wanted for their field sites. Dahl found it incongruous to use expensive fossil fuel (in some places the cost of hauling in fuel translates into roughly $25 per gallon) that had to be stored and polluted the environment.

“It just didn’t make sense, and the more I saw it, the more it drove me crazy,” he says.

Arctic Bound

After a year doing renewable energy in Antarctica, Dahl decided to freelance and join his former colleagues at Polar Field Services. For the next three seasons he and Amy did stints with the company, and Dahl decided to join PFS full time in 2003.

The first year of contracting with PFS was the most challenging. It began with Dahl and Amy running the two-person Raven Camp in Greenland during the summer and then spending the winter at Summit—for a total of 13 months on the ice. Summit was “like a mission to Mars,” says Dahl.

“You are completely out there on your own,” he says. “You are completely dependent on mechanical life support. If the generators go down you better be good at fixing them.”

Cabin Fever

At Summit, the couple holed up for the winter with several others, braving the dark and cold while they kept the station functional. The irony, he noted, was being trapped indoors with his wife and three others for nine months, when all of them had equally self-reliant personalities.

“Polar programs tend to attract people who are outdoorsy, rugged individualists. Then you get gigs like that where you are stuck inside with others all winter,” says Dahl. “It is psychologically challenging to say the least.”

New Technologies

Still, he appreciated the experience enough to sign on, and today Dahl’s job entails designing, building, and installing power systems that won’t pollute the pristine environment they’re built for.

Dahl built and installed this solar and wind-powered power station at Imnavait Creek.

But don’t expect to hear him bragging about his accomplishments, even though system designs have been published in trade journals.

“The field of polar renewable energy is very, very small,” says Dahl. “Sure I have had a modest influence, but it is less because of any engineering brilliance and more so because I write. I document what I do. I have written a lot more words on the subject than most of my peers.”

(Learn more about polar renewable energy technology at www.polarpower.org.)

In The Beginning

Dahl’s interesting career path is all the more unusual considering he was an English major who graduated from college 12 years after matriculating. Rather than study renewable energy in school (“30 years ago there weren’t schools that specialized in this; everyone was self-taught”), Dahl studied literature while working as a motorcycle mechanic to pay his bills. However, his fascination with renewable energy had begun long before he went to college.

“I was interested since I first heard about it as a little kid,” says Dahl. “Solar panels that produce electricity without moving parts? How cool is that? I guess I started off nerdy.”

Then his interest evolved.

“I wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere and renewable energy was an obvious application for that. I had a keen interest and background in renewables before I stepped foot in Antarctica.”

Challenges for Polar Renewables

Dahl's field camp in nice weather, Alaska, 2007.

Adopting renewable technology came slowly and required the support of researchers and the National Science Foundation, which today funds significant renewable energy development projects.

Renewable energy has become more widespread and attitudes toward it have become measurably more accepting, says Dahl. Yet the technology is not without problems. At both poles, a seasonal dichotomy provides a fantastic solar resource in the summer and no solar resource in the winter.

“That’s a problem to overcome,” says Dahl. “So you need a back up. Wind is an option. Hydroelectric is problematic because the water freezes in the winter.” Often the best solution is a hybrid approach utilizing renewable energy as the primary power source with an engine generator or other “on-demand” power source for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Cost  Benefit Analysis

And initial infrastructure costs can sometimes seem prohibitive. Yet when compared to regular fuel costs, renewables are more cost-effective in the long-run, says Dahl.

“Renewable energy offers an operational cost stability you can’t get with fossil fuel with its fluctuating prices,” he says. “Extractive energy sources, be they coal, natural gas or petroleum, can be owned and the supply controlled. That is perhaps the main impediment to large-scale renewable energy development. The powers that be are reluctant to give up such a great business position, regardless of the now clearly identified cost to the environment. Nobody owns the wind, nobody owns the sun, and so your energy source is free. You just have to pay for the infrastructure required to harvest this environmental energy.”

You also have to train technicians to maintain the sometimes quite complex hybrid systems that are bruised and battered by the elements during extreme, long winters.

“There are obstacles in the way, sure, but they can be overcome,” says Dahl.

Creature Comforts

Along the way, Dahl is determined to enjoy himself. That means preparing for long trips in the field so he is comfortable, warm, and dry. Dahl sums up his job requirements as: 33% technical expertise, 33% writing, and 33% field savvy.

“You better have everything pretty well planned out because when you get dropped off by the bush plane, you’ve got what you’ve got,” says Dahl. “I’ve made enough mistakes now that I know how to do it right. That’s how you learn. Make enough mistakes and have enough miserable camping experiences where you know how not to repeat those.”

Dahl's work takes him to beautiful places, like this spot in Alaska.

As for why this lifestyle so appeals to him, Dahl turns more philosophical.

“Why would someone want to go backpacking and then climb a 14,000 foot mountain?” he asks. “For most people that would be hard to understand but for me that’s where I am supposed to be.”

It’s not always easy, he says.

“There are times I am out in the field and am being sucked dry by mosquitoes or sitting out a blizzard and it’s terrible,” says Dahl. “But by and large, I am a person who is far more comfortable in the wilderness than I am in the city. So you find something that resonates and works for you, and so, why not?  Due to the communications revolution, functionally it makes no difference whether I’m sitting in a cubicle in Denver or working from my solar-powered mountaintop home in southern Colorado (“PFS-South,” Dahl jokes). Given the choice, I’m going for the mountain top.”  —Rachel Walker