Even in a region known for being wet, Adak stands out. With 263 days of precipitation a year, it’s the rainiest city in Alaska. Streams cut through every hill, and there are more lakes than there are people.
On a tour of Adak’s dams and pipes, city manager Layton Locket tells me that the water-flow is so powerful that they need to depressurize it before delivering it to homes for human consumption. If they didn’t, the city’s pipes would explode.
“You know that guy, in 2002, who shot the Transalaska pipeline?” asks Lockett. “If he were to put a bullet into this pipeline, it would rupture and go off like a big bomb. That’s how pressurized this thing is.”
Now, the city wants to harness that power. This August, Adak received a grant from the Department of Commerce to study the possibility of hydropower on the island.
It’s a big move for Adak. The 150-person community was struggling to keep its lights on not long ago. In 2008, the city suffered from major outages, and a now-defunct fishing company skipped out on a half-million-dollar bill. The state eventually handed over the city’s authority to run the island’s WWII-era diesel power plant to Native corporation TDX.
TDX absorbed the losses and brought the island power security, but also doubled rates in the process. Electric bills can cost a family up to $600 a month, and Lockett doesn’t see any way to bring them down using the current equipment.
“It doesn’t take long to pencil out that we have to do something,” says Lockett. “I mean, even if we wind up with new diesel generation, we kind of have to do something, and now’s as good a time as any to invest in that.”
That’s where a city-owned hydroplant comes in. The idea is to bring electric rates down about 75 percent all while using a local, renewable energy source. Since Adak already has dams built from its old days as a naval base, the city would mainly have to focus on setting up turbines and improving its electrical grid. The Department of Commerce analysis is meant to give them a better sense of what that involves how fast it can be done.
While the federal government is footing most of the bill for the study, Adak is still contributing $40,000 — or four percent of the city’s annual budget. They also spent $30,000 last year on dam inspections. These aren’t insignificant commitments for the small community. But with the fuel being so expensive in rural Alaska, Lockett says that investment could pay off pretty quickly.
“You know, cheap reliable power, I think that’s every community’s dream,” says Lockett. “We hope to make it a reality, and sooner rather than later.”
The city would like to have the study done by next year, and aims to secure financing for the project by 2013.