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Energy Lessons from the Edge of the Earth

Wind turbines

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Five wind turbines are seen in the village of Tuntutuliak, situated in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of western Alaska. The wind turbines have just recently come on-line and are part of a sophisticated energy system devised and managed by the Chaninik Wind Group.

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The fact that the local jail is one of the only lodging options for visitors to the native Alaskan village of Tuntutuliak is a clear indication of its remote location. But what really stands out about this village isn’t its isolation but instead its incredible story of renewable energy—specifically, the use of wind and smart-grid technology that has the potential to fundamentally change the energy landscape of rural Alaska.

The village of Tuntutuliak, known locally as Tunt, is situated in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region—an area about the size of the state of Oregon in western Alaska. There are approximately 400 people living in Tunt and they are almost entirely Yup’ik Eskimos. English is the second language here, since children speak Yup’ik at home and learn English in school. It is also a hunter-gatherer society, with a diet that includes smoked fish, wild salmonberries, and moose, to name a few local delicacies. There are approximately 56 villages almost identical to Tunt in the region, and they all struggle with extremely high energy costs.

Each of these villages is off the power grid and on their own microgrid, which means they cannot take advantage of the large economies of scale that occur with more centralized energy generation in the lower 48 states. Instead, these villages primarily use diesel-burning generators for electricity. With the price of diesel hovering around $7 per gallon in the region, energy costs consume approximately half of the overall budgets of these villages. As many experts expressed this past May during a Center for American Progress event—“Challenges and Opportunities for Renewable Energy in Alaska”—these costs are crippling native Alaskan communities.

Wind turbines

Yet Tunt is attempting to curb these costs with five wind turbines, the first thing one notices coming in for a landing on the village’s gravel runway. The wind turbines have just recently come on-line and are part of a sophisticated energy system devised and managed by the Chaninik Wind Group, a consortium of four villages with a mission of harnessing the extensive wind resources in the region to defray the high costs of using diesel.

As part of the consortium, the local utility in Tunt, TCSA Electrical, has been working closely with an energy consulting company, Intelligent Energy Systems, or IES, to develop a system that will work in all four villages. In Tunt alone it is estimated that the village will lower its diesel gas use by as much as 70,000 gallons a year, which could be a $490,000 annual savings depending on the price of diesel. But getting to this point was no easy journey—in fact it took more than 10 years and a great deal of grit and determination.

One of the first challenges the Chaninik Wind Group faced was simply choosing the right wind turbines for the community. The turbines had to integrate seamlessly with the existing diesel generators and suit the unique conditions of the harsh Alaskan climate. To meet that challenge, the group chose to remanufacture the medium-sized Windmatic 17S wind turbines, which means the controls in Tunt are entirely unique to that system. According to the group, the turbines have a rated capacity of 95 kilowatts at peak production. When the winds are strong and the air is cold in the winter, the turbines can easily produce 20 percent more than that at around 115 kilowatts. The group also reports that the average electric load in Tuntutuliak is around 160 kilowatts during the summer and 200 kilowatts in the winter, so the turbines have the potential to replace 40 percent of the fuel used for power generation in the village and 10 percent to 15 percent that is used for home heating.

After choosing the correct wind turbines, there was the challenge of getting the equipment to the village. At one point, the barge carrying the rotor blades was iced in about 40 miles from Tunt in the town of Bethel. This required members of the local utility to construct a large sled, which was attached to snowmobiles to pull the rotor blades across the frozen tundra. But when it came time to assemble the turbines, it was soon discovered that the shipment did not include bolts. It would take several weeks for the additional parts to arrive.

At the same time, the Chaninik Wind Group received federal funds to install smart-grid technology to monitor the electricity usage in the village. Nearly all of the homes in the village currently have smart meters, allowing the local utility to use a computer to read meters and prioritize housing repairs and weatherization efforts based on where the need is greatest. The Chaninik group also hopes to implement a prepayment system in the near future.

In addition, some 30 homes were outfitted with residential electric thermal storage devices. These units will store the excess wind electricity generated in the winter months to help heat homes during the rest of the year when winds are not as strong.

The significance of what the Chaninik Wind Group has accomplished cannot be underestimated—after all, they pulled off what no one before them had.

In the coming months, projects in two other native villages, Kongiganak and Kwigillingok, will be up and running as well. It is believed that the controls can be scaled to larger wind installations and there is already a proposal in the village of Kipnuk that would cut diesel-fuel usage there by 50 percent with a project designed to supply between three kilowatts and five kilowatts of electricity per resident.

After 10 years of piecing together funding and solutions to new challenges, future projects are expected to move faster. Clearly, the project in Tunt is a game-changer that has the potential to fundamentally alter the energy landscape for rural Alaska.

For that to happen, though, the biggest challenge may lie ahead. Although the technology is simple and suited to the region, it will take trained personnel to operate, maintain, and update the system. The Chaninik Wind Group wants to create close to 20 jobs between the four villages, but it is struggling to develop that workforce. Outside companies have offered training sessions in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but the sessions require participants to pay for their own housing, not to mention that the training schedule has sometimes conflicted with the critical hunting seasons.

Still, given the obstacles already overcome by the people of Tuntutuliak, it seems likely that this challenge will be overcome as well. It’s clear that the native people of Tunt are not trapped in this remote location but instead choose to live there and adapt their lives to each new challenge with a mix of modern advancements and traditional Eskimo culture. Several members of the village have attended college, enlisted in the Army, or otherwise left the village, only to return. It is a culture steeped in time-honored tradition, but one also committed to improving the standard of living for future generations.

In rural Alaska, the need and desire to harness wind energy to decrease electricity costs is not political.  It is about relieving financial burdens, creating jobs, and improving the quality of life for both current and future residents of villages like Tunt. These same goals apply to the lower 48 states, where too often special interests manufacture challenges and obstacles that political leaders seem unable to surmount. If there is a lesson to learn from the people of Tunt and the Chaninik Wind Group, it would be that it may take time, a whole lot of patience and cooperation, and even a large sled, but sensible solutions can become a reality.

Christy Goldfuss is the Public Lands Project Director at the Center for American Progress.

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