Small-scale turbines get praise in Alaska villages

Alex Demarban, The Tundra Drums
12/29/09

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – Two Western Alaska villages spinning power from small wind turbines say they’re saving thousands of dollars a year.

“I’m still amazed at what they’re doing,” said Gerald Kosbruk, president of the tribal government in Perryville on the southern Alaska Peninsula.

However, the head of the largest utility in rural Alaska, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, cautioned that such wind turbines have their drawbacks.

The tribally owned utility in Perryville installed 10 Skystream turbines last year for about $100,000, said Kosbruk.

In April last year, after the turbines had been up for five months, the utility crunched some numbers. The turbines had saved an estimated $9,143, he said.

And the turbines didn’t operate at full power during that period.

That’s because workers often switched off individual turbines to “fine-tune” them to improve their performance, he said.

In the months since, the turbines, situated behind a fence near the Pacific Ocean, have operated at full production, so the savings have likely improved, he said.

Also, the village has had a lot of wind this year, so that’s likely helped too, he said.

“It’s blowing pretty good out there today,” he said.

Best of all, the village is no longer running out of diesel fuel for the power plant.

The village of 130 doesn’t have much fuel storage, so every six months the village ran out. The utility would fly in limited quantities until the next barge arrived with a large shipment.

The fly-in fuel could cost more than $10 a gallon, three times the barged-in fuel, Kosbruk said.

The tribal government, using federal funds for tribes, considered buying the turbines for individual houses since Perryville doesn’t have many. But the utility would have lost money, he said.

By making the turbines part of the utility, everyone should benefit by receiving cheaper electric costs in the long run, he said.

The small turbines were the subject of a renewable energy classes organized by the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council in Anchorage last week. A dealer who sells them taught a group of Western Alaska villagers how to build them.

The package – with a 2.5 kilowatt turbine, three-blade propeller, steel pole and cables today costs about $11,000 to install in the Anchorage-area, said Kirk Garoutte, owner of Susitna Energy Systems and the man who helped install Perryville’s turbines.

The cost would rise with rural transportation costs, he said.

They’re simple to install, and within a few hours the students had bolted the turbine to a 42-foot steel pole and raised the system with a truck winch.

Students from villages like Marshall on the lower Yukon talked excitedly about how they’d like to see 10 of the Skystreams in their village, like Perryville has.

Operation limitations

The head of the largest utility in rural Alaska, Meera Kohler, said the turbines can help some villages.

But Alaska Village Electric Cooperative can allow only a limited number of individuals to operate them in villages they serve, she said.

For example, the village of Marshall, which has about 420 residents, could only have two turbines tied to AVEC’s grid.

More than that, and flickering would cause problems for others, including clocks that would need resetting.

Proponents of the small wind turbines call those problems insignificant, she said.

“But people experiencing those issues come unglued,” she said. “They think it’s our problem.”

Remembering rural wind turbine projects that went belly up in the 1980s, Kohler also cautioned that while the turbines look attractive on paper, unexpected maintenance and equipment costs can quickly eat up any savings.

Shaktoolik in Northwest Alaska uses two Skystream turbines to help power the corporation building in the village of 223, said Fred Sagoonick, general manager of the Native corporation.

The corporation drew on its savings to buy two Skystreams to help power the corporation’s building in the village of 223.

They’re saving hundreds of dollars a month at the building, which includes a grocery store and offices on the second level.

Sagoonick, an AVEC board member, worked out an agreement with AVEC that allows it to sell power to the utility for credit, he said.

It doesn’t sell much, since the building consumes nearly everything the turbines produce, he said.

The turbines started spinning two years ago, but one suffered problems with the microprocessor and needed to be repaired.

For the last year, “they’ve been running awesome,” Sagoonick said.

Even with the turbines, the corporation’s October electric bill was $812.

But that’s roughly half of what it used to be.

Two years ago in October, without the turbines, the building used more than twice the electricity, he said.

“It will be awhile before we see payback, but it does free up a few hundreds of dollars a month to help us keep up with other bills,” Sagoonick said.

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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