While on a recent day trip to Kodiak to tour the community’s electrical grid that’s almost entirely powered by renewable energy, Senator Lisa Murkowski and the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, hopped on a plane and took a quick detour to the small community of Old Harbor.
The community has been working to develop its own renewable resources for decades, but still has a long way to go.
Rick Berns has been the mayor of Old Harbor for years, and it doesn’t seem like that long ago to him when the school had over 100 students. But, now.
“I think I was told yesterday there was only 26. I thought we had 33, but I guess we have 33,” Berns said.
Old Harbor, along with other villages in the Kodiak Archipelago are having to deal with their populations dropping.
“People are migrating out of the villages and looking for jobs and, you know, economic stability,” Berns said.
Old Harbor has a plan, according to Berns, to slow its out-migration. The community wants to improve its harbor and start a fish processing plant to develop its economy and keep people in town. There’s one problem though, to entice a company to build a processing plant, the village needs access to cheap and reliable energy.
Right now, the community mostly relies on diesel for its power, which can be expensive and its price often fluctuates. Berns says there is an answer to Old Harbors energy trouble — hydroelectricity.
Since the 1980s, he says, the community’s been working on a project to generate energy from a local river called Lagoon Creek.
“It’s a pretty much a run-of-the-river style hydro project and it has the capacity of 500 kilowatts of generation.”
Even though Old Harbor knows how it wants to incorporate hydroelectricity into its electric grid, it still hasn’t started construction on the project. Berns says that’s because it took years and a lot of money for the village to meet all the requirements needed to move forward. And now, the community still needs to raise about $11 million to build everything.
It was these challenges that inspired Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski to bring the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, to Old Harbor. They were on a trip to Kodiak to see its power grid that’s almost completely powered by hydro and wind energy. Murkowski brought Secretary Perry to the village so he could better understand the challenges facing some of Alaska’s smaller communities.
“For him to see how innovation in a place like Kodiak has helped facilitate an economy and see how a smaller area is struggling with an economy but could have the potential to do so much more if they only they had a small renewable energy project,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski would like to see permitting reform that’d allow smaller hydroelectric projects, like Old Harbor’s, be cleared faster and for less money. Secretary Perry and the Department of Energy doesn’t control permitting for hydroelectric projects, but Murkowski still wanted him to see how places like Kodiak and Old Harbor are being creative in their efforts to reduce energy costs.
“My hope is that he goes back to Washington and he’s able to say ‘you outta see what they’re doing in Alaska and how they’re doing it. They’re taking the lead, and they’re showing the rest country and the rest of the world how to really innovate when it comes to energy,’” Murkowski said.
Rick Berns, Old Harbor’s mayor, says Senator Murkowski and Secretary Perry were only able to stay in the village for about an hour. But, he says the time the community got with them — meant a lot.
“For them to actually come to our community and get to know us, to show concern, it’s humbling, and a great honor,” Berns said.
Secretary Perry seemed energized by what he had learned as he left the village, according to Berns. Berns doesn’t expect anything will come from the visit, but he thinks it’s valuable that someone in President Trump’s administration knows about Old Harbor’s situation.
After leaving Kodiak, Secretary Perry continued north. The secretary only had two days in Alaska and spent the second one in Prudhoe Bay meeting with representatives from the oil and gas industry, according to Senator Murkowski.