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Wind power fuels Alaska's push for rural renewable energy sources

Alex DeMarban
Courtesy Intelligent Energy Systems

Alaska's alternative energy revolution will take a new twist this summer when 15 turbines spin to life over a trio of Southwest Alaska villages, in one of the most notable wind projects ever to reach the Bush.

Like so much heavy equipment in Southwest Alaska, the turbines are old-school hand-me-downs imported from the Lower 48 -- in this case, the California desert. They seem small and stodgy by today's standards, resembling Kansas farm ornaments with four-legged bases and lattice-work sides. But at 12-stories tall, they'll tower over tiny Kwigillingok, Kongiganak and Tuntutuliak, home to about 1,200 residents total.

They're a perfect fit for the small communities, experts said. And refurbished though they are, the turbines are part of a decidedly high-tech project that includes online meters residents can use to monitor electric use from home computers and electric heaters that automatically fire up when extra wind blows.

People are ready for relief from high costs in the Yup'ik villages near the Kuskokwim River mouth, where the diesel fuel that provides power and heat is barged up the coast at great expense, said William Igkurak, longtime manager of the local power company.

In Igkurak's home village of Kwigillingok, the smallest of the three villages with 350 residents, hunters fill freezers with seal and fish because living there is pricey. To top it off, annual incomes average $10,000 a person -- about one-fifth of Anchorage's average wage -- for those lucky enough to work.

Over the decades, Igkurak had grown tired of seeing heat and power swipe up to two-thirds of a family's money during the coldest months. So he and other villagers formed the Chaninik Wind Group in 2005 to tap into alternative energy.

"We wanted to be reliant on ourselves, not someone else," he said. "We wanted to build human capacity and train our people. Too many workers come from outside, get paid and take their money away. I'm trying to reverse that effect."

State fuels a renewable boom

Key to the $10 million project has been Alaska's renewable energy program, which provided about half the funding; another state program provided most of the rest. Launched in 2008 when oil prices spiked, the state's renewable energy effort has provided almost $175 million to study 227 potential projects statewide. Of those, 84 were completed or are in development.

The projects will save utilities and other organizations about $35 million annually once they're all online in two years, said Peter Crimp, head of the state's renewable energy program.

Some already provide energy.

  • In Juneau, the airport now uses underground warmth to heat the terminal and melt sidewalks.
  • Wood-fired boilers heat the school in Tok and reduce fire hazards by using wood thinned from the forest.
  • The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward heats its building with special pumps that grab warmth from Resurrection Bay seawater.    

Those new projects join old ones like the dams and other hydroelectric facilities built in the 1980s during another state-funded boom sparked by skyrocketing oil prices. When oil prices crashed and electric bills fell, skeptics thought Alaska had tossed away millions, Crimp said.

But oil rebounded higher while the costs of the hydroelectric projects remained stable. "People thought, 'Oh boy, that was a mistake,'" Crimp said. "Now here we are at $120 a barrel and things are looking just great."

Thanks largely to that old hydropower, Alaska's is among the Top 10 states for the percent of electricity it draws from renewables. The figure stands at 22.5 percent but will reach 25 percent with the new projects, Crimp said.

Wind power is growing fastest. Twenty communities already rely on turbines, but wind energy is poised to triple soon, said Stephanie Nowers, communications director with Renewable Energy Alaska Project.   

Helping increase wind power will be Fire Island west of Anchorage, where a subsidiary of the Native corporation CIRI plans to install 11 giant wind turbines. With $25 million in help from the state, the wind farm will generate 17.6 megawatts, enough to power about 6,000 homes.

The investment in renewables is a great start, but the state needs to do more, said Nowers. The Legislature approves an annual rural power subsidy that two years ago topped $35 million. Yet this year the Legislature added just $25 million to its renewable energy program.

And four years ago, the Legislature provided a $1,200 check to help every Alaskan with soaring energy costs that year, a $744 million expense. Investing in renewables could lower those subsidies, she said.

"It's great that we're providing short-term relief for energy costs, but we still need long-term solutions," Nowers said.

Electric four-wheelers, too?

As for the Chaninik Wind Group, they've already fired up three turbines, one for each village. Once the local power systems are modified to handle the 12 other turbines, the village utilities will each save an estimated $150,000 on annual diesel-fuel costs, or about $375 for each resident.

"You betcha, man," villagers are excited, Igkurak said. "They ask me when the turbines are going to be up and running and when they're going to realize their savings. I tell them it's not going to happen overnight."

The utility needs to catch up and save money first, a goal that's been complicated by customers who can't afford to pay their bills, he said.

For some families, the electric heaters will produce immediate savings. About 75 of those will be distributed for free, reaching a quarter of the homes in each village. Those households will save an estimated $1,000 a year as the electric heaters fire up and diesel-burning stoves click off, said project manager Ben May with Intelligent Energy Systems, a consulting company that's managed the project for the villages.

The three villages aren't the only ones dreaming renewable in Southwest Alaska. Bethel's Martin Leonard, a consultant helping villages pursue alternative energy projects, said Newtok's tribal council would like to go completely diesel-free.

With the US military's help, the eroding village is relocating to a new site 9 miles away called Mertarvik. There, the council plans to study power possibilities from wind and river turbines and solar panels atop super-insulated homes, said Leonard, with Sustain Rural Alaska.

It's a unique opportunity to start new, start fresh and do it right. Why not envision that diesel is off the table? I think that's a legitimate goal," he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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