Rural villages chase cheaper sources of fuel

Communities consider salmon waste, wind as options for energy

Posted: Monday, July 07, 2008

A group of Dillingham fishermen hoping to reduce gas costs for the Bristol Bay fleet are sketching plans to turn salmon waste into fuel.

In Nunam Iqua in Western Alaska, a tiny utility hopes to spin power from the wind electric use will jump when a new school opens and flush toilets arrive.

And in Fort Yukon in the Interior, Native groups hope to heat buildings with wood collected from fire-charred swaths of forest.

Throughout isolated, rural Alaska, where fuel prices often top $6 a gallon and produce enormous electric and heating bills, residents are racing to find cheaper energy using natural resources in their backyard.

The Denali Commission and Alaska Energy Authority are helping fuel the alternative energy stampede with state and federal funds. In June, the groups awarded $5 million to 33 projects around Alaska.

People in Nunam Iqua have to do something, said Carin Finch, a grant advisor at the city.

"We're in shock," she said.

The summer fuel barge hasn't arrived, but gas and heating fuel prices in the village of 200 will likely barrel past $7 a gallon when it does. Electric bills will rise 40 percent. "There's grave concern," she said. "We're hoping the state can help electric utilities."

Residents in the Yup'ik village started looking into building wind turbines in 2005 when officials realized plans for a new school would double the community's electric use, said Finch. The school opens this fall. The load will increase when houses finally get running water and toilets that flush, requiring electrically operated pumps, probably next year.

Tests show there's enough wind in the village, Finch said. But more studies are needed.

The city received $34,000 from the Denali Commission to determine if wind turbines are a good investment and if the tundra can support them.

If they can't be built, residents will consider hydropower or some other form of alternative energy, she said.

"It's the future," Finch said.

Native groups in Fort Yukon hope to beat the "ungodly" fuel prices - $6.49 a gallon for diesel - by harvesting wood downed by forest fires, said David Thomas, power plant operator in the village of 600.

About $800,000 from the Denali Commission will help buy equipment such as a brush cutter and backhoe.

"We'll get a lumber company going, harvest wood, bring it back and then buy some big boilers to heat the buildings," Thomas said.

The groups the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments and the Gwitchyaa Zhee Corp. hope to employ a few residents who gather wood in winter and barge it down the river in summer. "The money will stay in town, ya know," Thomas said. "Hopefully it will knock down some of these diesel prices."

In Dillingham, Steve Noonkesser has helped organize a group of fishermen and others who are studying ways to reduce the cost of energy. They hope to get cheaper gas for driftnet fishermen.

"They fish all over the bay and they're really getting hit," said Noonkesser, who fishes commercially from a shore-set net.

The group, which includes retired fishermen and people with electrical and welding skills, are looking into making a machine that can render oil from fish waste.

If it can be done economically, they'll turn fish oil into biodiesel that can fuel boats.

That would be much cheaper than gasoline, said Noonkesser.

It would improve the bottom line for fishing operations and allow some people to stay in the region instead of moving to Anchorage for cheaper living, said Noonkesser. That's happened a lot in recent years, he said.

"This is a good place to live and finding ways to continue to live here is pretty important to me," he said.

The group might apply for an $180,000 Alaska Energy Authority grant to help pay for the oil-rendering machine.

The authority announced the grant on June 20. It will be awarded by December, said James Jensen, an AEA assistant project manager.

The machine should be portable so it can travel between communities, rendering oil at different processing plants, he said.

The effort hopes to build on the success of UniSea Inc.'s Dutch Harbor operation, Jensen said. The seafood company's processing plant there has saved loads of money by mixing fish oil with expensive diesel fuel to generate electricity.

Other big processing plants in Alaska use fish oil to heat buildings and make fish meal.

But smaller processing plants collectively throw away millions of gallons of fish waste a year without extracting the oil. Those smaller plants can't afford the rendering equipment and a portable machine could help them, said John Steigers, a consultant for the project.

The fish oil could be used by the processing plant or community in raw form to heat buildings. It could be mixed with diesel fuel to power electric turbines, as UniSea does. Or it could be converted to biodiesel fuel, as Noonkesser proposes.

Creating biodiesel from fish waste is just one of the group's ideas to bring down fuel prices in Dillingham, Noonkesser said.

"Anything that would reduce energy costs would be good," he said.

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