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New renewable energy system contributes to series of power outages in four communities on lower Yukon

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Christine Trudeau
/
KYUK
Pictured is an AVEC wind turbine in Bethel, AK, which is the same size as the one in Pitkas Point, AK.

A cluster of four communities on the lower Yukon has been experiencing power outage after power outage since the new year. The electric utility is calling them “growing pains” as it finishes installing a renewable energy system there. But customers are complaining that the power outages are destroying home appliances, and that the power utility isn’t taking responsibility.

Since the new year, there have been about a dozen power outages in St. Mary’s, Mountain Village, Pitkas Point, and Andreafsky. Those nearby communities are on the same electric grid, managed by Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC). AVEC CEO Bill Stamm said that most of these outages have only lasted a few minutes, and that there are numerous reasons for them.

“It's kind of been a calamity of errors for that community,” Stamm said. “Because there have been weather issues, there have been other equipment failures, distribution failures, engine failures, all those sorts of things.”

But on top of all that, additional outages have occurred because AVEC is configuring a new renewable energy system there. In 2019, AVEC installed a large, 900 kW wind turbine in Pitkas Point. It’s big enough that the power generated from it can be shared among all four villages on the grid. There are about 1,500 total people living in the four communities.

Stamm said that there have been huge environmental savings from the turbine already. “We displaced about 45% of the power for all four of the communities, including Mountain Village, with wind power, so we are burning quite a bit less diesel now,” Stamm said.

Stamm said that the new wind turbine resulted in the consumption of 170,000 fewer gallons of diesel fuel in 2021.

But it hasn’t been easy for AVEC engineers to figure out a larger, more complicated power system. Stamm said that engineers modifying controls in a new power plant in St. Mary’s directly caused several outages recently. Stamm apologized last week on AVEC’s Facebook page, calling the recent outages “growing pains.”

“We had a couple back-to-back just in the last day,” Stamm said on Feb. 11. “That's a lot more than anybody wants to endure. And I thought it would be appropriate to send out an apology.”

But some customers, like St. Mary’s resident Sylvia Nerby, are asking for more than an apology because she says that AVEC’s power outages have been very costly for some people. Nerby is a St. Mary's city council member, but spoke as a community member.

“A sorry on Facebook isn't enough,” Nerby said. “I believe that they should reimburse people for all these outages and equipment that's been blown up.”

When the power in a small grid goes out and comes back on, that surge in electricity can sometimes overwhelm and destroy home appliances. Nerby said that a low-income housing unit in St. Mary’s was hit particularly hard as the power came back on after an outage around New Year’s Day.

“It blew out coffee pots, microwaves, ovens, some lights,” Nerby said.

She said that the surge after the outage also blew out a transformer on a utility pole, knocking the power out for that low-income housing unit for a week.

“Those six families had to be put up in bed and breakfasts or other people's homes,” Nerby said.

Nerby said that she’s happy AVEC is moving toward renewable energy, but said that the company is making too many mistakes during the transition. According to her, AVEC owes money to people who’ve been financially impacted by the outages.

Stamm would agree with Nerby if an investigation corroborates her claims. Stamm said that customers can submit a claim for damages on AVEC’s website. If an investigator from the utility’s insurance company finds that AVEC was responsible for damages, Stamm said that the company will reimburse the customers.

As for how long the power outages will continue, Stamm said that he expects the outages to quiet down soon.

“I can't make any additional promises other than it is our continual effort to not have nuisance outages, and to prevent outages from happening in general,” Stamm said.

AVEC plans to finish integrating its new power system in St. Mary’s and the communities around it by the end of this year.

Updated: February 17, 2022 at 4:11 PM AKST
St. Marys resident and city council member Sylvia Nerby clarified with KYUK after the story was published that she made her comments as a community member, not as a city council member.
Greg Kim is a news reporter for KYUK covering environment, health, education, public safety, culture and subsistence. He's covered everything from Newtok's relocation due to climate change-fueled erosion to the Bethel chicken massacre of 2020.
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