When Atka’s hydroelectric power plant came online at the end of last month, it was the culmination of decades of planning, according to city administrator Julie Dirks.
“We started off with some reconnaissance studies, which were done back in the mid-80s, but back at that time, fuel was very inexpensive. They found that the cost benefit ratio was 1:1, so at that time it just didn’t make any sense.”
That’s not the case anymore. Dirks says today, electricity from the community’s diesel generators costs 76 cents a kilowatt hour, compared to 27 cents a kilowatt hour for hydroelectric power. For a facility like the school, which uses up to 4,000 kilowatt hours a month, that’s more than a thousand dollars a month in savings.
“[The rates are] not as low as some were expecting, because we have a loan to repay, but it’s still significantly less.”
The $5 million project was paid for with a combination of public and private grants, and a $705,000 loan from the Alaska Energy Authority. Dirks says that’s a lot of money for such a small town, but that the city felt after 20 years it had to move forward with the project, or nothing was ever going to happen.
“[Atkans] are paying like $7.50 a gallon for heating fuel, and so you use 100 gallons in a month, that’s $750 just for heat. And then there’s electricity on top of that.”
Construction of the 238 kW hydroelectric plant started in 2010 and wrapped up this summer, with final tweaks to the distribution system last month. The plant started supplying power to Atka’s 59 residents on December 23, and in the summertime it will also generate some of the power for Atka Pride Seafoods, a seasonal fish processing plant.
But the city isn’t getting rid of its diesel generators yet. The hydroelectric plant can only operate nine or ten months out of the year, when there’s enough water flow to power the turbines. When the water flow drops, the system will switch over to working in parallel with the diesel generators. Dirks hopes that someday, that can change.
“We’re looking at wind, developing some wind, for Atka Pride, and also for heat [sic] purposes. But again, that’s going to be another long process. Maybe not so long.”
The city is hoping to work with APICDA, the co-owner of Atka Pride Seafoods, on that project.