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Tiny Alaska village hopes to cut energy costs with experimental river power

Suzanna Caldwell

In Yup'ik, the word "igiugig" means "like a throat that swallows water," so it's more than fitting that the village of the same name would be the test ground for one of Alaska's first river-powered electrical generators.

The Ocean Renewable Power Co. is getting ready to put its RivGen Power System generator in the water outside the village in early July. The generator is powered by the Kvichak River, taking the river's current and producing renewable energy for the tiny Southwest village of 70 people.

Marsh Creek contractors recently finished building the machine, which looks like a giant underwater wheat thresher. Last month, it was getting prepped to be trucked to Homer, where it will be placed on a barge for shipment to Bristol Bay and then floated up the Kvichak River to its permanent location outside the village.

Igiugig is an ideal test location for such a device, according to Chris Sauer, president and CEO of ORPC. The village is close to the headwaters of the river at Lake Iliamna. That means the water is clear, without extra sediment, and there's less chance that big debris -- like logs -- will come through and clog the system.

Sauer said the unit should be able to run for about five years before it needs to come out of the water for a routine evaluation. The company is working on a plan to create a debris-diversion system and a coating to protect the generator's blades from being worn down by silt that might be an issue in more extreme environments.

The idea for the generator dates back to 2007. The company, based in Portland, Maine, has big interests in tidal energy and is keeping an eye on Anchorage, which sees some of the largest tides in North America. But in nearby Cook Inlet, natural gas is plentiful -- at least at the moment -- so the cost of tidal energy isn't competitive. That led Ocean Renewable Power to begin discussing a smaller operation in rural Alaska, where expensive fuel oil drives up energy costs. The idea of a river generator started to make sense in Igiugig, where heating fuel costs $7.33 a gallon, according to resident AlexAnna Salmon.

"We listened," Sauer said. "The market was telling us there really was a need."

Once installed, the river generator will produce up to half of Igiugig's power. Commercial power in the community costs $1 per kilowatt hour. In Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, it's about 16 cents.

There are significant up-front costs, however. Sauer said it cost $4 million to $5 million to develop and build the first generator. The company invested about $2 million in the project, but much of the funding came from grants, including from the U.S. Department of Energy and from the Alaska Energy Authority, which provided just under $1.5 million through its Emerging Technology Fund. Sauer said the next version of the generator will cost about $500,000 per unit.

The idea of river power is not entirely new to Alaska. The village of Ruby tried a river power generator as a pilot project in 2009, but it had a troubled start. The generator has been battered by the mighty Yukon River, fighting off debris and silt since the beginning and producing minimal power. Jon Waterhouse, executive director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, which championed the Ruby project, said the group has now moved on to other methods of exploring renewable energy outside of the river body, noting that solar power in particular has promise.

Despite the failings of some renewable energy projects in other parts of the state, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative President and CEO Meera Kohler sees great promise in the river generation system at Igiugig. It even runs in the winter beneath the ice.

If the system works, Kohler said the implications could be huge for other small villages looking to reduce electrical costs. Villages along many river systems could benefit. For instance, New Stuyahok on the Nushagak River in the Bristol Bay region is well upriver, adding to the challenge of barging fuel to the village of 500 during early or late freeze and breakups. Even such villages as Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island could benefit, she said.

In Igiugig, Salmon said the idea for river power has been long on the horizon. She first heard about the project in high school, but as the idea percolated for almost a decade, companies came and went. Villagers' attitudes changed from excitement to "we'll believe it when we see it," she said.

But with the cooperation of Sauer and others, Salmon said the community has changed its mindset, and there's full buy-in today.

"We're welcoming it with open arms and an open mind," she said. "We all believe in it."

Reach Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com.


By SUZANNA CALDWELL
suzanna@alaskadispatch.com