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Problems and Solutions in Unalakleet: Wind, Sun, Water

Man in heavy jacket stands in front of large array of wind turbines
Gabe Colombo stands in front of Unalakleet’s fleet of wind turbines, which currently generate about 25% of the community’s power.

Volunteer Gabe Colombo, recently back from a reporting trip in Unalakleet, shares this story of how renewable energy is making an impact in the Norton Sound coastal community:

Many Western Alaska communities are attempting to boost renewable energy generation — not so much out of environmental concerns, though that is a factor, but mostly because shipping fuel to rural Alaska is so costly. Even though infrastructure like wind turbines is a high capital investment, the savings are significant over the long term.

Unalakleet has six wind turbines about two miles outside of town on a very windy hill. They were installed in 2010 and fully operational in 2011, and they collectively generate about 25% of the community’s electric power, saving 70,000 gallons of fuel each year (worth about $160,000).

But right now, the turbines can’t run at their full potential; the local utility lacks the storage to capture all the power that could be coming in. The next step, the Unalakleet Valley Electric Cooperative General Manager, Reese Huhta, told me, is to boost that storage capacity with more batteries, so that they can rely on wind even more.

UVEC uses four diesel generators to provide power when the wind drops off. With additional battery storage, extra energy generated at periods of high wind could cover those short, low-wind gaps, without having to rely on diesel as much. UVEC uses surplus electricity to power a boiler that provides heat, which could also produce more if the new system were in place.

By coincidence, the need for a more robust energy grid was evidenced on the very day Gabe landed in Unalakleet:

I happened to arrive on a morning when there was a power outage caused by a line break. 15 homes were without power. I filed a story on the outage for KNOM’s 12 noon newscast and again for 5:00.

During Gabe’s time in Unalakleet, he also learned of several residences — and a pizzeria! — that will soon use or already use solar panels to supply energy back into the local power grid. Improving life in rural Alaska often involves many small solutions put together.

Unalakleet stories have been keeping Gabe very busy. In mid-winter, a severe leak in the town’s local water main threatened to deplete its normal water supply, especially when weeks elapsed without crews being able to find the exact source of the break. With the local utility relying on backup water sources and bypass systems, residents boiled their water before consuming it, for fear of contamination. As we go to press, crews have arrested the leak, but as is common for rural Alaska, final repairs will have to wait until summer. You can read more of the important stories you made possible right here at knom.org.

Image at top: Gabe Colombo stands in front of Unalakleet’s fleet of wind turbines, which currently generate about 25% of the community’s power.

Two men chat while inspecting large machinery
Inside Unalakleet’s main power station, UVEC General Manager Reese Huhta consults with Wayne Wilson, a UVEC technician. Photo: Gabe Colombo, KNOM.

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