In the coastal tundra village of Kongiganak, some residents are keeping their lights on this winter by promising to sign over future tax refunds.
But the persistent Bering Sea winds that drive up the cost of light and heat in impoverished Western Alaska are now bringing a promise of redemption as well.
Last week the state proposed spending $14 million to erect wind farms in six villages on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, including Kongiganak. It's part of a plan for spending $100 million on renewable energy around Alaska to reduce consumption of expensive diesel fuel and bring down local electric bills.
"The wind turbine is a blessing for us," Harvey Paul, general manager of the local power company, Puvurnaq, said Monday. "We have some of the highest fuel prices in the state and some of the best winds."
No longer will seal hunters have to complain when rough weather keeps their skiffs on the beach, Paul said. "Now they'll stay home and enjoy the wind and be happy that their electric rates are going down."
The problems in rural Alaska posed by high energy costs and a poor fishing season swept into the news this month with dramatic reports from Emmonak and nearby villages on the Yukon delta. Some critics accused the state of being slow to respond to a humanitarian crisis.
But last year, with oil prices soaring, the Legislature did take aim at the long-term with the Renewable Energy Fund. Lawmakers committed $50 million for the first year, then added another $50 million during a special session on energy.
The six delta wind projects are on a list of 72 renewable energy priorities recommended by the Alaska Energy Authority last week. The list also includes wind projects around Nome and Kotzebue, wood-burning boilers in the Interior, small hydro feasibility studies and help for Railbelt utilities.
The priority recommendations must be approved in the next few weeks by the Legislature, which must also decide whether to continue funding the program at a recommended pace of $50 million a year.
COST OF POWER DROPPED
This year's sharp revenue decline has created a different environment in Juneau. Some legislators have expressed concern about the money laid out in the $100 million list, while others have been supportive, AEA executive director Steve Haagenson said.
On the impoverished Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the AEA list recommends wind turbines for the village of Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island, the regional hub of Bethel and three coastal villages near the mouth of the Kuskokwim: Kongiganak, Kwigillingok and Quinhagak.
The state also plans to spend $1 million to add another turbine to the three now providing electricity for Toksook Bay and the nearby villages of Tununak and Nightmute.
The money would be available for construction this summer -- if the in-demand turbines can be found. The program must also pay for computerized controls that integrate wind and diesel power into a single system.
The AEA recommendations were based on proposals submitted from around the state.
In two western communities where wind farms already provide some electricity, the cost of power has dropped about 15 percent, according to the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative.
In Toksook Bay, three existing wind turbines saved almost 46,000 gallons of fuel last year, according to the AEA. A similar setup in Kasigluk also serves the neighboring village of Nunapitchuk through an intertie.
Quinhagak expects to use three wind turbines to replace one-third of its diesel-generated power, saving about 50,000 gallons of fuel a year.
Across Kuskokwim Bay, Kongiganak hopes to cut its fuel use for electricity in half, Paul said. The village received $1.5 million from the state for three wind turbines in 2007 and is slated for another three for $1.7 million.
With diesel up to $6.50 a gallon in Kongiganak, fuel costs for the power company have doubled in the past two years, stressing household budgets, Paul said. Promissory notes are helping some get by this winter. He said the majority of residents poured their $1,200 "energy rebate" checks from the state last year into heating oil and electric bills.
"Of course, some people didn't use it wisely," Paul said. "If people (in Anchorage) hear about somebody who didn't use it wisely, maybe they think everyone is like that."
'ALL THIS TURMOIL'
The state's push for wind power has excited some villages, but it won't go far to solving the chronic economic problems of remote villages in Alaska.
Even with a savings from wind and the state's rural power subsidy, electricity in a village like Quinhagak will still cost four times as much as Anchorage. And the windmills won't help with heating homes, which is the big burner of fuel and family income.
"Heating, that's exactly where all this turmoil is coming from," said Francis Sipary, assistant manager for the Toksook Bay village Native corporation.
Moreover, the renewable energy recommendations only scratch the surface of rural electric needs. None of the new money, for example, is going to Emmonak or the nearby Yukon delta villages that have generated recent headlines.
"It became clear after the AEA process, there are way more viable projects than there is current money available," said Chris Rose, head of the nonprofit Renewable Energy Alaska Project and a member of an AEA advisory team that helped review the list.
Emmonak is working up a proposal for several wind turbines, but the city has not yet dedicated land to the project, said Brent Petrie, renewable projects manager for AVEC, a 53-village coop. His organization pushed forward projects that had property agreements and permit issues mostly solved, Petrie said.
The Emmonak project will probably include an intertie to the village of Alakanuk, said Emmonak city manager Leon Kiana.
Residents think about getting a break on their electric bills when the wind blows across the tundra, he said.
"It's kind of brisk right now," Kiana said. "So where are the windmills?"
Find Tom Kizzia online at adn.com/contact/tkizzia or call him at 907-235-4244