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$5.6M Grant Helps Kipnuk, Noatak with Soaring Energy Costs

Wind turbines in Bethel, AK in April 2013. Photo: Andrea Pokrzywinski via Creative Commons.

Communities in western Alaska are sharing more than $5.6 million in federal grants to relieve soaring energy costs.

The money is through of the federal Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development wing. The High Energy Cost grant program offers funds to relieve energy prices in areas that are more than 275 percent above the national average. For electricity, that average is $0.26 per kilowatt hour.

In Alaska, the big winner of the annual grant is the Yukon Delta community of Kipnuk, about 100 miles southwest of Bethel. The USDA is giving the village’s utility $2.97 million for energy projects that combine wind, heat, and diesel power. Kipnuk Utility manager Sam Carl confirmed the funds will go toward three wind turbines and about 100 thermal stoves.

“In my area here our kilowatt hour is about $0.61,” said William Igkurak, who owns Chaninik Wind Group. The wind group is helping Kipnuk purchased the thermal stoves, which use wind power to heat large arrays of bricks. The stoves can be fully charged within a day, and they can provide heat for three or four days.

“Once you turn the stove on, there’s enough stored energy to heat up (a room) in a matter of minutes,” Igkurak said. That could bring costs for energy down to “about ten cents per kilowatt hour,” he added.

In all, the USDA grant claims the Kipnuk project will lower home heating fuel use by 8,800 gallons and reduce the fuel required for powering the community by up to 40 percent.

The grant is also providing relief in Noatak—more than 580 miles north of Kipnuk—where tribal administrator Herbert Walton says every ounce of fuel, from gasoline to diesel for the town generators, has to be flown in.

“We haven’t had a barge in over 20 years,” Walton laughed. “River’s too shallow for a barge. Everything is flown in. It’s $8.99 for the stove oil, same price for the gas. All the building material, all the food and fuel, all that’s flown in.”

Noatak is part of AVEC, the Alaska Village Electrical Cooperative that serves 55 communities in Alaska. The grant gives AVEC over $358,800 to replace a diesel engine that’s 23 years old. The replacement generator is billed as more fuel-efficient, and will have a marine manifold that can recover waste heat from the engine.

With electricity in Noatak at $0.81 cents a kilowatt hour, AVEC president and CEO Mira Kohler said the new generator will help trim energy bills, if only slightly.

“It will allow for the use of more energy out of the same amount of diesel, hopefully displace some gallons of heating fuel, and reduce the number of gallons that we use to generate electricity,” she said. “So the cost of electricity should go down slightly, close to a ten percent reduction.”

The Denali Commission, a federal agency providing utility services in many areas of the state, is getting the remaining $2.3 million for new facilities in several rural communities.

A spokesperson for the USDA in Alaska said the last time one of the rural energy grants was awarded was in 2012.