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.
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.