Wind power takes off

By Alex DeMarben
Anchorage, Alaska (AP)1-08

Efforts are under way to get wind power to several more Western Alaska villages, including two where blades should start spinning this summer, according to managers with the largest electric cooperative in rural Alaska.

Seven 100-foot-tall turbines are already on the ground and waiting to be installed in Hooper Bay and Chevak, said Brent Petrie, community development manager with Alaska Village Electric Cooperative.

Four will go up in Chevak and three in Hooper Bay this summer, he said.

The cooperative, based in Anchorage, also recently purchased four wind turbines for Savoonga and Mekoryuk. Engineers will begin the work to install two turbines in each of those villages starting this summer, he said.

It’s testing wind strength near Emmonak and St. Marys, to see if wind power will work in those villages.

Mekoryuk villagers are desperate for the project to start, said Hultman Kiokun, city and tribal administrator. They want to save money on electric bills and get paid to work – two people have taken courses to prepare for maintenance and operation jobs the turbines should provide, Kiokun said.

“Everyone is excited,” he said.

About 200 people live in the Nunivak Island village. Jobs are scarce, and diesel to run the electric plant and heat homes is costly, he said. Some homeowners pay as much as $500 a month to stay warm in winter. Smaller electric bills will help them.

In the past four years, the cooperative has installed wind turbines in three Western Alaska villages – Toksook Bay, Kasigluk and Selawik.

The effort to install the three-blade turbines – AVEC hopes to put them in 27 of the 53 villages it serves – is being driven by rising diesel costs, Petrie said. The turbines will supplement diesel power, he said.

“We’re trying to keep costs down in the villages as much as possible,” Petrie said.

Last year, turbines saved Kasigluk $70,000 on diesel, holding down electric prices there. Toksook Bay and Tununak, which share wind power thanks to an electrical intertie, saved $85,000 last year, he said.

The turbines, purchased from Distributed Energy Systems Corp. in Barre, Vt., cost the cooperative about $1 million apiece by the time they’re up and running.

How much they will save residents depends on how much the wind blows and how much fuel prices rise, he said.

Installing the turbines in rural Alaska is often much costlier than buying them because of the high price of shipping them on barges and the extra work required by arctic conditions.

Because of global warming, the permafrost isn’t frozen solid like it was in 1980, when Petrie began working on power projects in the Bush. The ground shifts heavily during the thawing and freezing, and engineers must brace turbines with huge pilings that sometimes extend 50 feet beneath the surface.

Then there’s finding the right spot, a tough task when numerous state and federal agencies are involved. After choosing a location in Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, engineers had to move the site away from the coast to satisfy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – so spinning blades wouldn’t swipe birds.

Later, the Federal Aviation Administration asked planners to move the site again, this time so turbines wouldn’t endanger planes, he said.

Geologists have found a small area near the new school to put the turbines.

Residents in that village of about 700 burn driftwood collected from beaches to reduce their monthly power bills, said Milton Noongwook, tribal government president.

Cheaper electricity will help them.

“They badly need it,” Noongwook said.