Energy Lessons From The Edge Of The Earth

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Center for American Progress. Author credit goes to Christy Goldfuss.

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.

Tuntutuliak

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. (image via Center for American Progress)

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.

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.

The Center for American Progress is an independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action. Building on the achievements of progressive pioneers such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, our work addresses 21st-century challenges such as energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration, education, and health care. We develop new policy ideas, critique the policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter, and shape the national debate.