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Aniak residents were shocked when their power bills quadrupled in May

Erika P. Rodríguez for NPR

In April, Aniak resident Amanda Hoeldt’s electricity bill was $381.95. In May, it was more than $1,100.

“We were very shocked at the price of the power bill because we have a propane stove, we have a wood fireplace,” Hoeldt said. “And, like, it's April, June. So it's not like we're in the middle of January where we have lights on all the time or, like, running the furnace or the water heater or that sort of stuff."

At Aniak’s school, the electricity bill went from around $7,700 to almost $24,000.

“Just honestly, like, I'm standing in my district office right now and all the lights are off. We're all working in the dark," said Madeline Aguillard, Kuspuk School District Superintendent.

The residents and organizations across Aniak were shocked when their electricity bills quadrupled in May, and that they weren’t officially notified beforehand. The sole warning was posted on the village’s main Facebook page from the personal account of the president of Aniak Light and Electricity Company. She wrote that because of fuel prices, bills were going to be increased by four times or more. Then the post was deleted.

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

“I didn't really pay that much attention to it,” Hoeldt said. “Because, like, it was just a post on Facebook, and kind of just went on with my life. And then we got the power bill.”

As people in the community wrapped their heads around their bills, some started using lanterns; some didn’t pay. People unplugged devices and limited screen time. Some are considering moving.

Dave Diehl owns the Hound House, a local restaurant in a log cabin that he opened in 1994. They run three refrigerators, a big stove, small stove, dough mixer, and an air fryer. He mentioned the region’s compounding cost of energy.

“Gasoline is almost nine bucks a gallon up here. Diesel fuel is almost nine bucks a gallon up here,” Diehl said.

He’s hopeful because the community is resilient. He said that he won’t change prices until he has to, but he also said that this is the biggest hurdle in their 30 years. Right now, they’re not making money. If their power bill continues at this rate, they only have one option.

“Close down, I guess,” Diehl said. “I don't know. It's not, we can't just be working and making a couple of bucks a week.”

More than 10 people reached out to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska (RCA), the organization that regulates public utilities in the state.

In order to change the price of power, Aniak Light and Power Company, a private company and the sole power provider for the village of 500, had to submit filings to the regulatory commission.

The RCA said the increase was permitted by regulations because the company used the same method for calculating the price.

Diehl and other residents tried to dig in and call the commission, but they ran into regulatory code and calculations.

“The thing is, you got to be real educated. You got to be real computer skookum to get your messages across,” Diehl said.

The regulatory commission suggested three key reasons that the cost increased by so much this May.

The first and primary explanation was due to the increase in the fuel costs, which went up by 50%. Residents questioned why their bills then went up by 400%, and why neighboring communities hadn't seen similar changes.

Steven Jones, public information officer for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska said, “So sometimes it's a little bit difficult for people to understand that that is not immediate. They say ‘hey, this is a good break. Now, we should be charged a good price.’ It's because their utility’s recovering the cost of something that occurred in the past, in some cases, so this better price is not necessarily there yet.”

The second reason is that the utility expects sales to go down in the next few months. The final reason is that Aniak Light and Power Company’s finances show a big difference between what it’s spending versus what it is making and it’s hard to pin down exactly why.

This April, the power company’s president exchanged a series of emails in which the regulatory commission asked for information from September 2022 onwards four times in a row. That’s when the company’s financial deficit started. Eventually, the utility filed the information.

The records also showed that in 2023, the company’s line loss, or the power lost during transmission and distribution, which customers pay for, frequently surpassed the 12% maximum recommended by the state.

And in mid-April, the power company’s president, Darlene Holmberg, wrote a letter to the regulatory commission that it had again found a difference between how much fuel inventory it was supposed to have and how much it actually had.

Still, this is of little help to the people struggling with these price increases. Big customers include the stores, restaurants, the airport, the post office, and the school.

District superintendent Aguillard said that the new rate is unaffordable for the draft budget for next year. Though it’s the hub, Aniak is just one of nine schools in the district, which covers seven villages.

“But we had projected that we were going to budget $380,000 for utilities,” Aguillard said. “However, at a rate of $25,000 a pop, Aniak alone will consume that.”

With this new cost, she’s afraid that they’re going to have to make cuts.

“It's personnel. It's personnel that would take the hit,” Aguillard said. “And that's what we're afraid of. And we've worked really, really hard to keep these positions. To keep the minimal positions that we have.”

They don’t have electives or music or art, but they have the core curriculum and a tele-social worker. They’ve already seen an enrollment decline, and now more families are talking about moving.

During summer school right now, staff are making changes too. They sent out a district memo to turn the lights off, and to unplug the microwave and other devices after use.

“Like, a little bit micromanaging,” Aguillard said. “But it all adds up and it all, I mean, at this rate it's not, you know, cents on the dollar. Is it dollars that, you know, turning off the light is gonna affect?”

The power company doesn’t foresee a change in the prices over the next months. The regulatory commission has requested that the company file updates more frequently, and advises residents to keep monitoring its website.

Some residents still don’t think that will lead to much. This is the fourth complaint resident Marcus Tanner has filed to the regulatory commission.

“We have a history. Back in 2018, I had to leave here because they pretty much ran me out of my house,” Tanner said. “And every winter since I've been here, like 13 years now, people have these insane high bills. And it's, like, random people.”

This month, Tanner’s bill went up from around $400 to $4,000.

“Went up 10 times,” Tanner said. “And the first thing [an Aniak Light and Power Company representative] said is, ‘well, it’s going to be more expensive next month.’”

Tanner is hoping something will change before he has to leave Aniak.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.
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