The city of Adak, a remote Alaska island town in the Aleutian Chain, has long been eyeing the water flowing over the top of two dams that provide water to its businesses and residents. "Couldn't that water be turned into electricity," many have asked.
Now, a grant from the Department of Commerce will help answer the many questions that swirl around the potential project.
Is there enough water to generate significant amounts of electricity? What would the cost of putting in a hydroelectric plant be? Do the ends justify the means?
"This is a big first step," said Layton Lockett, city manager of Adak. "We want to get a handle on what it would take to power the town with this."
Lockett said the cost of power in Adak is one of the biggest constraints to economic development. At $2-$3 per kilowatt hour, the city's own electric bill tops $12,000 a month. There are a lot of things the city could do with that money, he said.
Beyond the city, there is virtually no entity in the city that is untouched by the high costs of generating electricity using the town's inefficient diesel generator. From the grocery store to industries like Icicle Seafoods, everyone feels the crunch.
"It's a precious commodity," Lockett said. "If Anchorage had the cost of power that we have, there would be no Anchorage."
So the two dams above town, with their overflowing waters, have long been considered of interest. The grant estimates that the preliminary study will cost $160,000 and will include an engineering analysis of the potential project. The grant covers $120,000 of that cost.
Lockett said the city wouldn't likely be considering hydroelectric power if it weren't for the fact that the dams, built in the '40s, are already there, and owned and operated by the city. While the electric utility that serves Adak would certainly be involved in any plant plans, it has yet to be determined how the two entities would proceed. The first step, Lockett said, is to find out how much power the dams can produce and how much it will cost.
While the city has considered a lot of different renewable energy sources of power, such as wind-generated power and geothermal potential, hydroelectric power appears to be the obvious choice from the standpoint of lower the cost of power quickly.
Lockett said the city has heard estimates of cost for putting together such a project that range from $15 -$20 million, but they are all estimates at this point. With an abundance of funding sources for renewable energy projects, the timing seems good, he said. The city hopes to have an analysis back by next April and in a best-case scenario, construction might be started within two years.
"We personally feel this is a strong project," he said. "The sooner it's done, the sooner everybody can realize the benefits."
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman.