Village of Wales erects windmills

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

WALES (AP) -- Workers at the windblown village of Wales on the Bering Strait have erected two wind generators that should be capable of providing power at times to the entire village.

Wind power presents a warp change to this village of 165 residents who got electricity only 28 years ago, one that could help wean Wales off dirty diesel fuel and save its electric company money.

''Seeing those wind generators rising on our horizon reminds me of when we changed from gas lamps to electricity'' in 1972, said Clyde Oxereok, a 41-year-old resident.

''But I do worry about their size and how they will handle the winds we get around here.''

The $1.2 million windmill project, heavily subsidized by government grants, could slice the village's diesel consumption by more than half, stabilizing electric bills that historically have been tied to volatile oil prices, said Brent Petrie, special projects manager at Alaska Village Electric Cooperative.

The utility runs the Wales diesel power plant and is buying the wind-generated electricity from Kotzebue Electric Association, the owner of the turbines.

Kotzebue Electric has experience turning on lights with wind. It runs the only wind farm north of the Arctic Circle -- 10 turbines in Kotzebue, a town of about 3,500 people in northwest Alaska.

In the Lower 48 and much of the most populated parts of Alaska, power is produced sometimes far from its ultimate consumers then moved to town by transmission lines strung across the landscape. But Kotzebue, Wales and other Alaska villages lie off of these electric grids. Diesel generators working in town typically provide the electricity.

Shipping fuel to villages is expensive. So is the price of diesel when oil hits $33 a barrel, as it has this year.

But wind is free and clean, and there's no short supply in western Alaska.

Wales, which hugs the western tip of North America about 110 miles northwest of Nome and 50 miles east of Russia, sees some of the strongest, steadiest winds in the state.

There should be plenty of days when wind powers the whole village, especially in winter, when it blows hardest and the village's electricity needs skyrocket, said Brad Reeve, general manager of Kotzebue Electric.

Wind should produce so much power that a system has been rigged to flow leftover electricity to heat the school and powerhouse. That makes this project unique because other wind plants typically supply less than 20 percent of a city's electricity, let alone produce excess power, Petrie said.

Electric rates probably won't drop in Wales, but they could level off if the village burns less diesel. Last year, Wales used 47,300 gallons of diesel at a cost of $59,000, Petrie said.

Spending $1.2 million on wind power to save $59,000 clearly doesn't make economic sense in the short term. But project supporters hope that over time, the windmills will teach them how to build and operate turbines in remote locations at a fraction of today's startup cost.

''We probably won't ever get away from diesel, but wind power does present the opportunity to lessen our dependence,'' Petrie said.

Kotzebue Electric and Alaska Village Electric have teamed with several government agencies to fund the Wales project. They are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation, Alaska Division of Energy and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Harnessing wind in remote Alaska is riddled with challenges. There are the high costs of assembling wind towers. Most villages lack cranes and other heavy equipment to erect towers. And keeping the windmills spinning also can be difficult.

''Just to see them run will be impressive,'' Drouilhet said. ''But to see them running after a year without milking the company . . . that will really be impressive.''

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