Wind power fuels Alaska’s push for rural renewable energy sources
May 4, 2012
By Alex Demarban at Alaska Dispatch: 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.” Read more