Small wind farm pays big

On Tuesday, the village of Unalakleet, seated on Alaska's northwest coast, celebrated the town's newest energy force -- turbine number six. The awakening of the high-tech wind catcher completes the installation of the town's new wind farm, which has already saved the village tens of thousands of dollars since the first turbines powered up a few months ago.

Since November, Unalakleet has cut utility costs by nearly $55,000 and generated enough electricity to power 86 homes for an entire year, according the wind farm's new Web site. The site also claims the wind energy has significantly reduced carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise have been pumped into the atmosphere through more traditional, diesel-only power generation -- the equivalent of more than 580,000 miles of driving in the family car. According to our calculations, that's about 111 one-way trips between Anchorage and Key West, Florida.

The project's success is due in part to a financial award from the State of Alaska's Renewable Energy Fund. The Alaska Energy Authority, which oversees the $250 million fund designed to lower energy costs for Alaskans, directed $4 million to the Unalakleet wind project. Other regional partners also chipped in, and the result is a six-turbine wind farm, owned by the Unalakleet Valley Electric Cooperative and targeted to reduce the community's energy costs by nearly one third. The Unalakleet project is one of nearly a dozen wind power projects in place statewide.

STG Inc. designed and built the farm, and you can actually see the construction through a time-lapse video on the company's Web site. The camera used to capture the images is solar powered, and the fuzzy parts of the clip are actually times when the camera was low on power, according to Clinton White with STG Inc..

Building wind systems in Alaska brings unique challenges. While the impact to the state's remote communities can be huge in terms of cost, the communities actually demand a very small fraction of what turbines are capable of supplying, especially compared to the big wind systems found in the Lower 48, White said. Plus, he added, power grids across the state tend to be small and isolated, which requires a delicate balancing act to ensure systems are stable. You can't rely entirely on wind because wind can cease at any time. Diesel power is far more stable, but costlier, so the goal is to integrate both systems for maximum efficiency, cost savings, and stability.

"You really want to find that sweet spot where you are able to displace as much of the traditional energy as possible without creating system stability issues," White said.

For example, he added, one way to prevent overload on the wind turbines is to create a way to "dump" any excess energy. In the case of Unalakleet, the wind farm directs extra electricity to water boilers, creating "waste heat" to warm the school gym and some school offices.

Alaska's arctic environment also poses unique challenges for the equipment. Alloys and metals used to build the turbines are designed to withstand the state's harsh, cold climate, the blades are painted black to help absorb heat from the sun -- thus deterring ice buildup -- and the equipment is also treated with a special coating to block bugs, including Alaska's infamous mosquitoes, White said.

For now, the farm is operating at reduced capacity since the main power plant in Unalakleet is slated for an overhaul next summer. Once the new power plant is in place, the wind farm can be more fully utilized, White said. The wind farm was projected to pay for itself after 10 years of use, but if fuel costs rise in the years ahead, the payoff could come much sooner.

Meanwhile, STG has more projects online, and says it's looking forward to harnessing even more of the state's raw wind power.

"We have phenomenal wind resources in our state and we are well poised to take advantage of this technology," White said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)