As of late last month, the village of Ouzinkie has a new hydropower system that provides the bulk of energy for the village of 130 people. But getting there wasn’t easy.
The story starts back in the 1980s – that’s when the village’s hydropower system was first installed. It worked – but it had issues and was only running at about 50% of its overall capacity.
And then in November of 2019, it failed altogether – a month after Elijah Jackson was sworn in as mayor. He says the city immediately started securing grants to fix the system.
“And then COVID came and just stopped everything,” said Jackson.
Parts were hard to find because of supply chain issues. And it was nearly impossible to fly people into the village – which is located on Spruce Island in the Kodiak archipelago – because of the pandemic. The scope of the project also changed and grew as time went on, and more people and equipment were needed for the ballooning scale of the work.
Jackson said in the midst of the project, the plant’s newly installed main water line, called a penstock failed – it’s the main water line for the whole system.
“It broke down in a year and a half – six months out of our warranty,” he said.
Ouzinkie had secured a $2.8 million grant to install the penstock – but it also took out a 40-year loan with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $464,000 for that specific part.
Tyler Kornelis is the economic development and environmental programs manager at the Kodiak Area Native Association. He helped with the grant hunting process for Ouzinkie’s hydropower system, and agrees that timing was a big hurdle.
“There’s supply chain challenges, there’s engineers that are overworked and under-available in the state,” he said. “So, just lining up the right people to get the job done has been a challenge.”
The village had to use diesel generators to keep the light on. But Jackson says they were hemorrhaging money to keep up with the fuel bills. The village was using three backup generators around the clock at a cost of $22,000 a month on fuel.
Jackson said they owe $109,000 to the Ouzinkie Native Corporation for fuel payments.
Jackson’s been reluctant to raise rates on residents. He said a short term fix has been for the staff to take on three to four jobs to cut costs – in his case, that means he’s also the village public safety officer. And a lot of sleepless nights in the meantime.
“I have contractors and state employees calling me evenings, weekends, you know, just nonstop holidays,” he said. “I mean, it’s always something and so just to be doing it this long and actually have next to no results is is is tough. It’s like running and just pushing a wall that’s not moving nonstop.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, roughly 140,000 Alaskans depend on isolated electric grids – and those power sources typically come from burning fossil fuels. But that’s changing, thanks in part to an influx in federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that incentivizes renewables.
“There’s gonna be a lot more opportunities for rural Alaskan communities to take advantage of local renewable energy resources,” said Chris Rose, the executive director of Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, which promotes the development of renewable energy in the state. The organization wasn’t involved in Ouzinkie’s hydropower project.
He said Alaska is positioned to be an international leader to provide developing parts of the world a model to use as more remote communities develop their own renewable microgrids. The city of Kodiak, for example, is almost entirely reliant on renewable energy from wind and water for its electricity. But Rose says designing a self-contained power system for a small community that’s off the road system, like Ouzinkie, is challenging. So is the upkeep.
“It’s not just money that we have to have, you know, we need project managers that are trusted and can help the community,” he said.
The most successful projects typically have what he calls “a local energy champion.” That’s someone in the community who’s keeping an eye on training opportunities for staff to maintain the project, or someone who understands how to tap into programs, like the state’s Power Cost Equalization program, to bring down rates for residents. And just as important, according to Rose, is connecting with other communities that have had similar growing pains.
“There’s really no reason why every community has to go through this for the first time and have the same kind of issues that maybe another community already learned from,” he said.
Ouzinkie didn’t quite have the luxury to plan for all of this, since its energy system failed suddenly right before the pandemic. But Jackson says he’s reluctantly taken on the role of energy champion since then.
“I love challenges,” said Jackson. “I also didn’t know when I was elected mayor, it makes you utilities manager here too. So, it’s been a huge learning curve and I definitely had no idea what to do during a pandemic. It’s been a very humbling experience.”
He says he hasn’t found any grants to help chisel away at the village’s outstanding fuel bills, but he’s hoping lower energy rates will help pay off the debt. And, most importantly, give people a reason to stay in the village long term.