The turbines are part of a move toward renewable energy in Alaska. Wind turbines dot rural Alaska. Solar arrays power a building in Nome. Tourists soak at Chena Hot Springs Resort, a getaway powered by geothermal energy. And increasingly, homeowners are using energy derived from the sun and wind to heat their homes, keep the refrigerator running and charge their iPhones.
Some involved in this movement are driven by a desire to reduce their impact on the environment. For others, the decision is financial. Using alternative energy means less reliance on diesel fuel to power generators. State and local officials have been busy writing new rules for how all this can work, especially the backyard wind turbines.
Chiropractor Joseph Hawkins of Palmer is a pioneer. His roughly 50-foot-tall turbine makes more electricity than needed at his business, BIONIC Chiropractic, so he has a contract to sell the extra power to Matanuska Electric Association. He’s one of the first people in the Valley to ever do that.
His turbine towers over BIONIC Chiropractic at 642 S. Alaska St. It went up on Oct. 2. Hawkins said he’s been interested in renewable energy since helping his family install solar power in Utah 25 years ago.
"I’ve been involved or interested in doing anything we can do to be resourceful or protect the environment," Hawkins said. "It portrays the healthy lifestyle I want to represent as a chiropractor." The turbine at his business is a residential-size model made by Skystream. It costabout $22,000 installed.
The turbine whirls frequently in Palmer, where breezes are common. Hawkins said he believes it will pay for itself in five to seven years. Power generated is used first in the chiropractic office building he built last year. Matanuska Electric buys what’s left. In the six weeks the turbine has been energized, that’s been less than a hundred kilowatts, Hawkins said.
The average home uses about 30 kilowatts each day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Hawkins and Lukas Strickland, a friend working with him on alternative energy plans, said they hope to install other types of renewables soon.
"Right now in Alaska people don’t really know what to think yet. This kind of project is really important to get people thinking about what renewable energy is," Strickland said.
The second Palmer turbine, installed Nov. 6, is a dramatic addition to the Sherrod Elementary School playground. The school’s Alaska-themed playground includes boulders marking Mount McKinley and a partial pipeline. Now, a 51-foot tall Skystream turbine stands about where Fire Island would be on the playground map.
It’s the first wind turbine installed at an Alaska school as part of the national Wind for Schools program. Principal Mark Hoffman said Sherrod is taking part in the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored program and tapping into wind energy-related curriculum for students. Schools in 26 states, including Alaska, participate.
In most of those states, small wind turbines have been installed, and teachers use data from the turbine as part of their lesson plan for teaching about energy and weather. At Sherrod, the turbine is powering hallway lights. District officials said it’s too early to know how much of the school’s energy bill the turbine might offset.
Sean Williams, a fifth-grade teacher at Sherrod, said he’s eager to have a new way to help his students understand a difficult concept like wind energy.
Nobody has a wind turbine whirling in their backyard in Anchorage, but the municipality and its power company are working to change that.
Anchorage zoning rules currently don’t permit wind turbines. One of its electric companies, Municipal Light & Power, doesn’t allow small consumers to hook a backyard turbine to the electrical grid and sell power back to the utility.
Jim Posey, general manager of Municipal Light & Power, said the city-owned electrical utility will soon offer "net-metering" contracts to Anchorage residents. The utility is waiting for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska — which oversees public utilities — to finalize its new net-metering rules.
Net metering is a policy that allows people or companies that own small renewable-energy facilities to sell excess power they generate to their local electric company.
Alaska is one of six states lacking net-metering laws. But the Regulatory Commission on Oct. 14 approved net-metering regulations. A commission spokeswoman said the regulations should go to the state attorney general’s office for review this month. Eventually, they’ll go to Gov. Sean Parnell to be enacted.
Hawkins and Sherrod Elementary already have an agreement like that with Matanuska Electric Association. MEA consumers typically buy power for 16 cents per kilowatt. The co-generation rate — what MEA pays small producers — is about 6.2 cents. MEA spokeswoman Lorali Carter said the difference represents the utility’s cost to maintain its transmission lines and other infrastructure.
Posey described a similar set-up in the works at ML&P. But the new net-metering laws might be in place for months before Anchorage residents can legally hoist a turbine into the air on their property. Residents who ask municipal officials about putting wind generators up now are told to wait, Anchorage physical planning supervisor Tyler Robinson said.
Robinson’s office worked last year to develop land-use rules about installing wind turbines. The Planning and Zoning Commission passed the rules last fall. But the measure stalled when it reached the Assembly. The Assembly is rewriting city zoning laws and wants to finish them first before tackling new issues, Robinson said. The wind-generation rules may be on hold until mid-2010, he said.
Robinson said he gets frequent calls from city residents interested in installing wind generation on their property. There’s definitely interest. But Anchorage isn’t an easy place to adopt one rule for all residents. The city wants to make sure wind-turbine rules are made after a vibrant public discussion.
"Some of these smaller applications, whether on residential lots or in business districts, will really challenge the values that people have," he said.
"I don’t think if we were to just put it out there tomorrow it would be entirely embraced with open arms and everyone would think it’s a great idea. But I think the mayor is generally supportive."
Wind and other alternative power systems are cropping up all over the state, largely spurred on by abundant sources of funds — federal and state grants for renewable energy and federal tax credits for installed systems — and communities eager to cut their dependence on expensive diesel fuel.
Alternative energy supplier Kirk Garoutte, owner of Susitna Energy, said he talked Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan into granting him permission to install two turbines at his 2507 Fairbanks St. property to help him demonstrate the equipment he sells.
Without net-metering in place, the turbines will only churn wind, not make electricity, but Garoutte said they’ll allow his customers to watch turbines in action.
A residential set-up, installed, costs about $15,000, he said. A Department of Energy program that delivers a 30-percent tax credit for residential renewable energy systems installed by 2016 can help lower upfront costs.
Perryville, an Alaska Peninsula community of 133 people, installed 10 of his turbines, Garoutte said. He believes the turbines will pay for themselves in about 18 months. Others whirl in Nome, Shaktoolik, Chignik, Kipnuk, Fairbanks, Healy and Willow.
Meera Kohler, president of Alaska Village Electrical Cooperative, said her power company for 53 villages has energized 21 turbines since 2003. Four more will be spinning in Chevak before the end of the year, she said.
These are commercial-grade turbines, with an installed cost of nearly $1 million each, plus $1.5 million for a system that lets the turbines be monitored from afar, Kohler said.
AVEC spends about $5 million a year on diesel. The board hopes to shave $1.2 million off that with wind-generated energy, Kohler said.
Kodiak Electric Association in August installed three 1.5 megawatt turbines, each producing enough electricity to power 330 homes.
Darron Scott, Kodiak Electric chief executive, said in an August presentation to the Alaska Power Association that he expects the turbines will save 800,000 gallons of diesel each year.
A 36-turbine wind farm planned for Fire Island is expected to generate about 10 times the electricity from Kodiak’s three-turbine wind farm. Work on Fire Island could begin next year.
"We’re starting to see a lot of momentum pick up with wind around the state," said Chris Rose, founder of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.
Jerald Brown, president of the Bering Straits Native Corp. of Nome, said the corporation has invested more than $3 million in alternative energy products recently.
Two years ago, Bering Straits installed 93 solar panels on its Nome office building. The corporation also installed solar hot water heaters in two apartment buildings it owns, and partnered with Sitnasuak Native Corp. on Banner Wind LLC, a wind farm with 18 turbines that sells power to Nome Joint Utility.
Brown said the corporation is opening an energy-efficiency store in the corporate office building to sell LED light bulbs, energy-efficient garbage composters and timers to plug vehicles into.
Outside Fairbanks, a century-old resort where tourists flock to watch amazing northern lights displays while soaking in natural hot springs is on the forefront of alternative energy of a different kind.
In 2006, Chena Hot Springs owner Bernie Karl started generating power from geothermal hot water under the resort. This year he unveiled another mobile plant that uses heated waste water, from oil and gas development and other sources.
Out in Southwest Alaska, Naknek Electric Association is using millions in federal money to drill into potential geothermal sources. Its November newsletter describes results so far as "hopeful."
There’s a lot happening Alaska backyards, too. This summer, 30 homeowners around the state participated in a "solar tour" aimed at taking the mystery out of green building techniques and home renewable energy systems.
In the Valley, some homes on the tour relied on renewable energy by necessity: A house made of straw bales that is beyond the reach of electricity and off-grid cabins near the Talkeetna Mountains that rely mostly on solar power, for example. Others incorporated efficient designs and renewable features for other reasons.
A modern two-story colonial home with a garage and full basement on the tour is heated by sun-warmed water. Homeowners Dave and Karen Jones said they wanted a low-maintenance home with low energy costs that they can enjoy in their retirement.
"We’re not making any concessions," said Dave Jones. "We’re not tree huggers. We’re normal people. We’re just looking for a more efficient way to do it."
Phillip St. John, president of the nonprofit Alaska Center for Appropriate Technology, said events like the solar tour show people renewable energy is something anyone can do.
"There’s really people out there doing it. Their neighbors are doing it," he said. "If you think renewable energy is something for the future, then you’re living in the past."