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Remote Aleutian villages seek greenhouses to get fresh greens

Posted: July 23, 2011 - 11:41pm

SAINT GEORGE — It is 2,000 miles from Anchorage to the tip of the Aleutian Islands — which is geographically in the Eastern Hemisphere — and small communities spread across the region are some of the most isolated in the world, some with a hundred or more miles of ocean between them and the neighbors.

The weather is tough, and the supply line is long.

“Anything I eat that’s green comes out of a can, and it may be years old,” said Pat Pletnikoff, mayor of Saint George, in the Pribilof Islands.

He was talking with Bruce Wright, senior scientist at the nonprofit Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, who was trying to talk to Pletnikoff about greenhouses.

Pletnikoff was skeptical, Wright recalled. He needed to hoard his political ammunition to lobby in Juneau and Washington, D.C., for harbor improvements, an urgent concern for St. George and its fisheries-related economy. He worried a greenhouse would divert peoples’ focus.

But as Pletnikoff learned more about Nikolski — the village and the island where it sits — he became a convert. The village of Nikolski’s population of 38 is predominately Aleut population.

Now, Pletnikoff wants a greenhouse for Saint George. Sand Point wants one too, and Nikolski wants a second, larger one.

Nikolski is 116 miles west of Unalaska and about 900 miles southwest of Anchorage. The island has grass, wild cattle and sheep. People there work mainly in fisheries off the island, although the Aleutians Pribilof Island Development Association, or APICDA, a community enterprise development fisheries group, is working with the village on small-scale tourism.

Locally grown foods are part of a community-sustainability initiative now under way by a coalition of business, nonprofit and tribal groups in the Aleutians. Energy is at the top of the priority list — Atka, one village in the region, pays 74 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, six times that of Anchorage — but given the extended supply line to the Aleutians food security has emerged as a second priority.

“Food security is a growing international problem, and the remote communities of Alaska are particularly vulnerable to supply disruptions in the food delivery system,” University of Alaska economist Robert Mikol said in a paper on viability of greenhouses in rural communities. “It is important that as food and energy prices rise, local communities develop a local food production system that is less dependent on outside resources.”

The regional coalition Wright is involved in includes the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, APICDA, Eastern Aleutian Tribes, the Aleutian Housing Authority, and the Aleut Corp., which is the Alaska Native regional corporation for the region.

Wright said Nikolski has had its greenhouse, a 24-foot diameter dome structure, for three years now and it supplies the community with fresh produce for more than half the year, Wright said. The last crop, cabbage, was harvested in December, he said.

Wright briefed members of Commonwealth North, an Anchorage-based business policy group, on the groups’ efforts July 13. Commonwealth North has a special task force working on rural energy issues that has been meeting weekly this summer.

The geodesic dome shape of Nikolski’s greenhouse helps the structure withstand winds up to 130 mph, Wright said. Solar panels provide the small amount of electricity needed, and the translucent external panels spreads light evenly through the greenhouse, unlike the transparent windows often found in conventional greenhouse, which puts light only into certain areas.

The unit is highly efficient. “You can go out there at 2 a.m. in February and the building is still at 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit,” Wright said.

A range of vegetables has been grown, including lettuce, cabbage, radishes, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.

There are obvious nutrition and health benefits. Nikolski has a local store that sells only canned and dry goods. Anything fresh deteriorates and loses much of its nutritional value by the time it time it reaches Aleutians communities, even if it comes by air.

Nikolski has found that the social advantages of a community garden are almost as important.

“The whole community has come together on this. We see three and four generations of people working together in the garden,” Wright said.

There is very likely a second, larger greenhouse in Nikolski’s future that the community wants to pay for itself.

Local energy is another success for Nikolski. The community’s 65-kilowatt wind turbine, which began operating about a year ago, works in tandem with the 179-kilowatt diesel generation plant. Almost anywhere in the Aleutians has a good wind regime and Nikolski is no exception.

Preliminary data shows the community may be able to cut its diesel use by 50 percent, a savings of more than 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

This would allow Nikolski to stretch its use of limited local fuel storage capacity to hold an entire year’s supply of fuel instead half a year. If this happens, the community would be able fill its tanks with just one barge stop instead of two, Wright said.

Previously there was a second trip required in the fall that was risky because of weather. In one recent year when the barge operator was unable to land and emergency fuel supplies had to be flown to the island in small aircraft at costs that were in the stratosphere.

The wind turbine was expensive when it was first installed, and cost about $1 million. The price of similar-sized units is now down sharply, however, to about $130,000, Wright said. When the wind blows at 30 mph or above in Nikolski, it exceeds the community’s electricity needs, Wright said, so the excess power is used to heat water that in turn heats the local school and clinic.

Other Aleutians communities are pursuing renewable energy aggressively. Saint Paul, in the Pribilof Islands, has three 225 kilowatt-hour turbines, one dedicated to local fisheries plants. TDX Power, which owns the turbines, is working on a plan to supply the local community with power priced at about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Sand Point has installed two 500-kw wind turbines which also dump surplus power to a water heating system for public buildings. These are also owned by TDX Power. Saint George, in the Pribilofs, is looking at installing turbines and False Pass is working on gathering wind data, the first step in determining whether a project is feasible.

One problem at False Pass is that brown bears keep damaging the wind monitoring towers.

“Wind is an obvious resource for us, because the entire Aleutians region has a Class 7 wind regime,” which means the wind blows a lot, Wright said.

Two other Aleutians communities have small hydro projects. Atka, population 150, will have its local hydro project on-line later this year, allowing it to turn off the diesel-powered generators. Atka has a local fish processing plant, so hydro power will help the plant as well as local residents.

Geothermal is also being pursued in two communities. Akutan drilled two geothermal test wells last year and found hot water at 400 degrees Fahrenheit at a 300-foot depth. Consultants working with the city government estimate that one 12-inch well has the potential to generate 1 megawatt. Akutan is pursuing a project to build 10 to 12 geothermal wells to supply the community and the large Trident Seafood plant located there.

Wright said the regional coalition has other items on its to-do list including promoting energy conservation. The Aleutian Housing Authority has also launched a local competition to develop ideas for housing designed for the wet, windy climate of the region, and which would also be energy efficient.

Communities in the region have adopted an ambitious goal of reducing diesel consumption by 80 percent. “There’s no deadline for achieving that, but it gives us something to work for,” Wright said.

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