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A tiny Alaska village makes the wind pay

Craig Medred

The tribal leaders of the small village of Perryville on the Alaska Peninsula in a far corner of Southwest Alaska believe the wind has saved them $66,000 to date. The wind in Perryville does not blow particularly hard, but it comes steady off the Gulf of Alaska to spin 10 Skystream 3.7 wind turbines.

Villagers hoisted them into the air in November of 2008 using a winch mounted on a Ford F-250 pickup truck. Then they wired them into the grid connecting the village’s power to three, existing diesel turbines. The entire project cost $150,000.

All of this comes at a time when other small communities are spending millions to harness the wind. The federally funded Alaska Village Electric Cooperative plans to spend more than $3 million to bring wind power to the Bering Sea coastal village of Shaktoolik and more than $4 million to hook up turbines in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island in Southwest Island.

Mekoryuk is a community of slightly more than 200 people about 400 miles northwest of Perryville, a community of about 100. Both communities, like others all across rural Alaska, are struggling with the ever rising costs of diesel to power generators. Diesel -- the tax-free kind for home heating and power generation -- was going for about $4.50 a gallon in the regional hub of Bethel on Friday.

Perryville tribal leader Gerald Kosbruk said that if the village can get diesel shipped in there at a cost of $6 a gallon, it’s doing good. Given this, and the fact fuel prices are steadily climbing, he expects Perryville's low-budget community wind farm will have paid for itself in terms of diesel-fuel-cost savings by at least 2014 -- if not sooner.

By then, the wind turbines will be about a third of the way into their expected life of 20 years. Technical issues to date have been minor, Kosbruk said, a couple computer chips that failed. “I was able to send them new ones by U.S. mail," said Jay Yeager, an engineer for Arizona-based Southwest Windpower, the turbine manufacturer.

Villagers had no trouble using their Ford pickup and its winch to lower the 70-foot-tall, guy-supported tower on which each wind turbine sits, replace the chip and re-erect the tower, Kosbruk said. Maintainability and redundancy are the strengths of the Perryville system, said Kirk Garoutte, the Alaska dealer for Skystream.

Why haven't other Alaska villages harnessed wind?

In a worst-case scenario -- a total turbine failure -- Garoutte noted Perryville could take the broken, 170-pound unit down and ship it back to Anchorage even while he was shipping a new one out from his Anchorage business, Susitna Energy Systems.

Garoutte struggles to understand why other villages haven't recognized this and gone the route of Perryville with its farm of small wind turbines. Instead, most have invested heavily in larger, more powerful turbines that are hugely costly.

When U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited the village of Hooper Bay in the summer of 2009, he struggled to understand how it could be costing the community millions to install three Northwind 100 turbines. The Northwinds are state-of-the-art technology orders of magnitude more powerful than any of the turbines in Perryville. Because of that, however, they are also massive.

Local officials accompanying Chu on his tour explained the costs in Hooper Bay by noting the expenses not only to ship the turbines there, but to ship out the heavy equipment -- including a crane -- needed to install them. The blades on each Northwind alone weigh 3,100 pounds. The tower on which the unit sits weighs 30,000 pounds. And the nacelle, the power generating unit, adds 13,000 pounds.

And there, Garoutte said, is the problem. The way wind power is being done in rural Alaska today makes it as costly as the diesel it is designed to offset, and potentially more unreliable. Nobody in Hooper Bay is going to take down a Northwind turbine to fix it -- let alone ship it back to Anchorage -- if something breaks. Help is going to have to go to Hooper Bay to try to fix the turbine on-site in the event of a failure.

The Northwind, Yeager adds, is a first-class piece of machinery. But like Garoutte, he questions its applicability for rural Alaska, which has a sad history of well-meaning attempts at community infrastructure felled by maintenance problems.  Kosbruk said it was the ability of villagers themselves to maintain the Skystream turbines that first attracted Perryville to the lightweight, lower-cost Skystreams originally designed for American homeowners looking to power their houses.

Make it yourself and sell it back to the government

Garoutte is big on that idea. He likes to tell people that if there's one thing better than encouraging the government to save your money by finding more economical ways to generate electricity than burning fossil fuels, it's generating your own electricity and selling the surplus to the local utility. Garoutte is now practicing what he preaches in Anchorage. He has two demonstration turbines spinning above Fairbanks Street in Midtown.

Anchorage’s Municipal Light & Power has heralded those Skystreams as the city's "first non-utility metering installation. ... ML&P installed one bi-directional meter for both turbines; it measures energy delivered to the customer as well as the energy ML&P receives from Susitna Energy."

Though ML&P now bills this as a plus for local electricity users, Garoutte notes it took three years to get the city to go along with his plan, and even then it required an order from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska telling utilities to buy power from consumers wanting to get into the business of generating renewable energy.

Despite all the positive spin put on alternative energy sources, Garoutte said, local utilities haven't been enthusiastic supporters of alternative-energy ideas. Part of it is they want to own the infrastructure. Part of it is that they need, in the case of wind power, to maintain the backup energy generating capacity equal to a community's needs anyway. And part of it is because some energy ideas are simply too far outside the box, which is what appears to be the case with what has been done in Perryville.

Garoutte said efforts to take the Perryville model to other villages have run into opposition from organizations tied to big-budget, big-project thinking that is in turn linked to organizations run by or supported by big government. The Denali Commission, the $15- to $20-million-per-year independent federal agency the late Sen. Ted Stevens helped establish in 1998 to bring electric and other utility services to rural Alaska, is pretty much locked into the industrial-turbine model.

"There's nothing wrong with these big turbines," Garoutte added. But he questions whether a Cadillac is the best vehicle for places where the roads are better suited for a Jeep. Not to mention the issue of cost.

The turbines the Denali Commission is now helping to finance in a number of villages will stabilize electric rates that look to be going nowhere but up if those communities remain dependent on diesel generators. But Garoutte and Yeager admit to being frustrated that they can't seem to get anyone in authority to listen to the suggestion that in the case of smaller villages, in particular, there might be a better way.

"We can come in at $5.75, $5.50 a watt," Garoutte said. “They come in at $10.30, $10.50 a watt."

Fossil fuels as backup energy

Garoutte, a rough-hewn guy more comfortable in Carhartts than a suit, suggests there might be some politics involved in the decision-making. Garoutte is not a big political player. He's more comfortable at his Flathorn Lake homestead, where the power comes from the wind and the sun, than in his Midtown apartment. And he harbors a working man's suspicion about the way things work in government.

"We don't have a lobbyist," Garoutte said. "We're not taking people to the Captain Cook for dinner. We're just a small company."

The people of Perryville stumbled onto Susitna Energy while researching wind power on the Internet. Kosbruk said they called Garoutte to ask whether the Skystream turbines would work for powering their entire village and were pretty much shocked when he offered to come to Perryville to help design a community wind farm. They were even more impressed when Garoutte and Yaeger came up with a fairly simple system people in the village could largely install and maintain themselves.

Granted, Perryville still needs it diesels. The wind, after all, doesn't always blow, and it doesn't always blow as much as it is needed. But the wind turbines are now wired into a monitoring system that lets the wind dictate how much the diesels need to run. The biggest of the community's diesels largely sits idle now, and the middle-size one is largely inactive. The smallest of the diesels is, however, still required to throttle up at times as a sensor detects a greater community demand for electricity than can be provided by wind alone.

Kosbruk said Perryville is thinking about adding some more wind turbines. Garoutte said maybe further efforts at energy conservation would help. One of his first pieces of electrical advice to Perryville residents was to quit using so much. He poured the coffee at the tribal hall into a thermos, unplugged the monster coffee maker that had been keeping it warm, and informed tribal leaders he’d found one immediate energy saving. The village took note. Kosbruk said incandescent lights have since been replaced with compact fluorescents bulbs and other changes are underway in the village to find new ways to reduce energy consumption even as new ways are plotted to gain energy.

Perryville is now setting up a solar hot-water heating system for its main community building, although Garoutte noted one of the biggest energy changes in the village might have been one of the simplest. Perryville had been charging everyone the same for electricity, but switched to pay-as-you-go meters when it began its alternative-energy program. The natural power of the market almost immediately helped cut electric consumption. When people saw how much they had to pay for electricity, they found ways to use less of it.

100 people leading the way to energy independence

Garoutte is a big fan of markets. He concedes Susitna Energy has a financial interest in selling Skystream turbines in this market. His company is built around alternative energy, and it has to make a profit to survive. But he argues the profit-driven power of the market can generate ideas, as illustrated by Perryville, which could save rural Alaskans millions of dollars at a time when federal funding is starting to decline and state funding faces the reality of falling oil production in a state where oil taxes pay for almost everything.

A long-time Alaskan, Garoutte said, "I'm afraid eventually we're going to run out of money."

Before that happens, he'd like to get a whole lot more people, including Alaska's political leaders, to pay attention to what has been done in Perryville. "They're the leader in village power," Garoutte said, "and it's a little village of 100 people."

Kosbruk said he has heard from a few other communities interested in what Perryville did, but not many. Perryville did get invited to send a representative to an alternative energy conference in Nome, he added, but there's no money to pay for travel.

It's funny, Garoutte said, alternative-energy advocates based in and around Anchorage -- or Los Anchorage as some jokingly refer to the state's urban center -- seldom seem to have any trouble finding money for travel to alternative-energy conferences at which they can sell Anchorage-centric ideas about how to make life better in rural areas. There is only one problem, he added: "Anchorage is not Alaska."

Maybe not, but it is the center of Alaska's political universe. And when it comes to projects in rural Alaska, the political universe has a lot of control over the local purse strings. Perryville's apparent success with low-budget, alternative energy really means nothing to anyone outside Perryville unless a discussion of what appears to have worked there spreads to the rest of the state.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com