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Igiugig's hydropower launch a major step toward independence from diesel

Isabelle Ross/KDLG

In Igiugig, a first-of-its-kind hydrokinetic generator is getting a year-long trial. The launch last week marked a major step in the community’s quest for independence from diesel.

The RivGen commercial generator sitting on the beach of the Kvichak River is massive: Twin turbines connected to two giant pontoons, painted bright blue and yellow and shining in the midday sun.

AlexAnna Salmon, Igiugig's village council president, is speaking on the beach in front of the device. It is the hydrokinetic generator’s launch ceremony, the culmination of years of work. 

“Thank you for coming to the place where Lake Iliamna is swallowed by the Kvichak River," she began, continuing, "The Igyararmiut — the residents of Igiugig — are known for their cultural, environmental, and value-centered way of life. Since time immemorial, our people survived in this merciless homeland by inventing or adapting to new technologies, then refining them to the highest efficiency. We perpetuate this way of life.”

The RivGen Power System was deployed for preliminary testing a couple days after the ceremony. The twin-turbine generator sits under the surface of the Kvichak River. As the current moves through the turbines, they turn, producing energy. 

Diesel currently powers most of Igiugig. They fly in the fuel for the generators, driving the cost up to about $7 per gallon. Now, the RivGen is expected to provide enough power to the village to cut that diesel consumption in half. Installing a second device would offset almost all of it. 

The RivGen is one in a long list of renewable energy endeavors in Igiugig that include solar and wind power, and there are three driving forces that led to its launch: Sustainability, energy independence and cost. The latter is especially prevalent considering the recent uncertainty surrounding state subsidies to rural energy through the Power Cost Equalization program. 
“Like my family of six, we’re looking at $350 a month. I’m expecting that to double with PCE going away, so I have to make some huge cuts,” Salmon said later that day. 

Anything that drives up energy costs will have a big impact for the 70 residents of Igiugig.

“I have three freezers," she said. "We put up so much subsistence food that requires modern preservation. So I would have to change my lifestyle.”

The Maine-based Ocean Renewable Power Company designed the generator, partnering with the village to apply for funding and tailor it to the location. Prototypes were tested in 2014 and 2015, and studies during those trials didn’t show any impact to fish. This final version was modified so it is easier to install and maintain. 

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG
The red buoys mark where the RivGen hydroelectric generator will sit under the surface of the Kvichak River.

The launch marked the beginning of a trial year that will determine whether the generator will impact the young salmon migrating to the ocean, and whether it will be affected by icy conditions in the winter.

The Kvichak’s pristine waters serve as a highway for millions of salmon. In the spring, young salmon migrate to the ocean, and a few months later, older salmon swim back to where they were hatched in Lake Iliamna to spawn.

At the ceremony, guests milled around the beach, mingling with speakers who included Governor Mike Dunleavy and Steve DeWitt, an engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Chris Sauer, the CEO of ORPC, spoke as well. The community is hoping to install a second generator if this trial is successful, and Sauer said the price for doing so would drop significantly — ORPC projections estimate the generator would produce energy that costs between 65 and 70 cents/kwH. Right now, that cost is around 90 cents/kwH, before PCE. Since both the generator’s electricity and diesel are subject to PCE, the generator would still be more economical after the subsidy.

“We really believe that well-sited RivGen projects like this in other communities in Alaska will bring their cost down dramatically," Sauer said. "And at some point, I think the costs will be low enough that they will no longer require subsidies.”

The RivGen is designed for shallow rivers. The Kvichak’s current runs between 4 and 5 nautical miles — an optimal speed for the system.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG
ORPC workers set the RivGen's turbines.

The road to the generator’s deployment last week was long and winding. When the village first started to consider a hydroelectric project, they decided to apply for an emerging technology grant with the state. That meant that they worked with ORPC to develop a project from the ground up, instead of using an existing system. 

That trajectory was considerably lengthier than installing a device that already existed. It was also less expensive — the $4.4 million project was eligible for several state and federal funds that were matched by the village and ORPC. 

According to AlexAnna Salmon, the project sat in limbo once it had been developed; there was no funding for a project that did not qualify as established renewable energy but was no longer emerging technology.

After a gap in funding, in June of 2018 they received a federal grant of $2.3 million. This June, Igiugig became the first tribal entity to receive a Federal Regulatory Energy Commission permit for a water-powered project not connected to a dam.  

At the village’s housing unit for work crews and other visitors, Monty Worthington is getting ready to head out on the water. He is ORPC’s director of project development in Alaska, and he said that installing a long-term river turbine in a remote community is unique. 
“It is harnessing the energy in that moving water without making any dam or impoundment or structure that what we would call traditional hydro uses,” he said. 

But to do so, they have to transition the community’s power grid from one powered mainly by diesel to a grid that can integrate more renewable energy. That will allow them to turn the diesels off when the RivGen is producing enough energy to meet the village’s needs, but will kick the diesel generators on when that power is necessary. 

As utilities work to incorporate more renewable energy, restructuring the grid is one of the biggest challenges. Worthington said if they are able to incorporate existing technology to do so, it will have huge implications for renewable energy in communities small and large. 

“I think when we can prove it out in these small grids, it allows us to leverage that information and even apply it to larger grids and increase our ability to provide more renewable energy," he said. "So it’s a real novel project in that way, and it will have applications throughout Alaska.”

Exactly how much the RivGen will save is yet to be determined. Taking such a significant step toward sustainable energy, according to AlexAnna Salmon, falls in line with Igiugig's cultural values. Their goal to have an independent energy source for the community is part of their village strategy: Igyararmiuni Ciunerkaput — our sustainable future. 

“To be able to power your own community and have the local expertise to keep that power running and on — it only makes for a more sustainable community," she said, "Rather than relying on an outside entity that you have no control over to bring your power.”

Salmon said they are committed to making Igiugig an affordable place to live. And the turbines spinning in the Kvichak are a big step toward that goal.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG
Residents of Igiugig pose in front of the RivGen system at the launch ceremony, July 16, 2019.

Contact the author at 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.