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How electricity empowered rural Alaska politics

Ross Coen

It may seem hard to imagine now, especially for the younger generation in Alaska, but there was a time, just a few decades ago, when electricity did not exist in any meaningful, widely accessible way in rural villages.

The first major effort at electrifying rural communities took the form of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC) in 1968. Prior to that date electricity was often supplied only to a select few buildings such as schools and churches by means of a small gas-powered generator or rudimentary wind turbine.

The state recognized reliable electric power was essential for modern housing, communications, water and sewer systems, health facilities, and economic development. In the mid-1960s, when state officials were petitioning the federal government for funding on a wide range of infrastructure projects, they added rural electrification to the list.

The technical challenges of bringing power to the villages were relatively minor. All could be solved with existing, proven technology — diesel-powered generators, bulk fuel storage, transmission lines, and so on.

The real issue would prove to be financing and managing such an ambitious program.

Enter AVEC.

With the cooperative in place and letters of invitation sent to every village, the federal Rural Electrification Administration agreed to provide capital in the form of a $5.2 million loan for equipment and construction.

The Office of Economic Opportunity provided grants for operation of the power systems.

The U.S. Department of Labor put up training funds for local operators and maintenance crews. And the state of Alaska, in order to guarantee an affordable cost to village residents, agreed to purchase electricity for schools at a preset minimum rate regardless of actual consumption.

Most interesting from a historical perspective is that programs such as AVEC ushered in a new era of rural electrification where the technical and logistical goals of supplying power were matched with a focus on social empowerment of Alaska Native residents who had previously found themselves isolated from the political and economic institutions of the state.

Membership in AVEC, for example, required a commitment of local labor and construction resources, as well as the formation of a local utility run by a board of directors recruited from within the community.

AVEC's charter explicitly noted its function as "a means of increasing Native involvement" in rural development. In this way, its formation in 1968 fit squarely within the Great Society programs of the era that sought to combat poverty and improve social conditions in economically depressed areas. Largely for the first time in Alaska, AVEC demonstrated how the supply of energy involved both technical achievement and an investment of social and political capital.

These rural electrification efforts took place at a time when urban Alaska was similarly reaping benefits of increased federal funding. The REA's investment in Alaska more than tripled to $154 million in the first decade of statehood. And where the Federal Power Commission in the 1950s invested exclusively on power infrastructure in Anchorage, Fairbanks and other urban centers by the next decade it had turned its focus to outlying areas heretofore ignored in annual status reports.

The political standing of rural Alaskans was evident again in 1981 with the formation of Power Cost Equalization, a state program that used abundant oil revenue to subsidize the high cost of electricity in rural areas. The state was then investing millions in large hydroelectric projects that would supply power to the Railbelt, and PCE was devised as a trade-off to gain the support of rural legislators.

Said one observer of the Legislature's horse-trading nature in those days, "So long as the appropriations pie was large enough for all participants to get what they wanted, the rural energy subsidy was a tool used by urban and rural legislators."

My intent here is not to question the fairness of PCE or evaluate the success of AVEC — both have proven successful in some areas and failures in others — but rather to demonstrate how the social betterment of rural communities has been integrated into state and federal energy policy. What might have been a purely technical matter of "turning on the lights" instead became a public campaign with more lasting positive effects.

Between 1968 and 1985, community-wide power generation was brought to over 200 villages throughout rural Alaska. The form and function of AVEC has changed over the years; in fact, almost none of its original organizational requirements were met by the first villages to enroll. In addition, the ownership and operation of rural utilities today are achieved with a patchwork of tribal, municipal, private and cooperative entities that one could hardly have envisioned at the start of it all. The social importance of reliable power, however, is agreed to by all.

Ross Coen is an instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the author of "The Long View: Dispatches on Alaska History."

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission. Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.