The lights are back on in Fort Yukon, including the Christmas trees, now that three of the village’s four electrical generators are functioning again.
A couple of weeks ago, the holidays didn’t look so happy for the remote Yukon River community, when all but one of its generators broke down. But the community got through by cutting back and helping each other out.
And it all happened just as the utility was planning to build a new powerplant that will reduce their dependence on diesel-fueled generators.
Frannie Hughes is CEO of the Gwitchyaa Zhee Utility Corporation in Fort Yukon, known by the locals as GZ Utility. And Hughes says last week she was happy to tell her customers something that may sound unusual this time of year: “Plug in your Christmas trees!”
Hughes says she put the word out last week to light up the holiday decorations after several days of blackouts and brownouts, and then voluntary electricity cutbacks by Fort Yukon’s 600 residents. This, after two of the GZ’s four generators broke down earlier this month, including unit number 4, which she says had just been rebuilt and been reconnected to the village’s microgrid.
“That generator actually exploded, (which) is why we were without any real kind of any real backup,” she said.
So, she says, while GZ struggled to get a Fairbanks-based heavy-equipment shop to repair the big generator and get it back online, the utility limped along using a smaller generator. And, during the daytime peak load, they fired-up generator number 1 – the big, old unit that doesn’t run well and burns lots of diesel fuel.
But mainly, they relied on one of the two smaller and more efficient generators, number 3. It ran so reliably that she named it after the plucky little locomotive in the children’s storybook.
“Generator number 3 – that’s ‘the little engine that could’ that kept us going.”
But generators 1 and 3 couldn’t provide enough power reliably for all the utility’s 255 households and biggest customers – including the k-12 schoolhouse, the Yukon Flats Health Center, the Fort Yukon Airport and the university’s Alaska Satellite Facility.
“This big satellite dish – they actually keep that dish warm and heated, and that takes a lot of kilowatts,” she said.
Luckily, all those facilities had their own backup generators, which they all used while GZ Utility scrambled to get its generators fixed.
But the community’s water and wastewater-treatment facility did not have a backup unit, and Hughes says it was critical to keep it functioning. So she got the message out to everyone to reduce their use of electricity as much as possible.
“We told all the residents to cut back,” she said. Minimal use only. “We didn’t even want your porch light on.”
Hughes says just about everyone not only cut back on electricity, but also water use, to reduce the water and sewage-treatment plant’s electrical load. No showers. Minimal flushing of toilets.
David Bridges runs the Fort Yukon Airport terminal. And he says it really wasn’t all that difficult.
“Yeah, I mean, so some people had Christmas lights on, so they turned them off,” he said. “But, besides that, there wasn’t anything extremely out of the ordinary that you did.”
Bridges says part of the reason the community got through it all so well was because of a little help from Mother Nature.
“We were lucky that it wasn’t extremely cold,” he said, “so your vehicles didn’t have to be plugged-in. Because they do draw a lot of juice.”
Hughes says the ordeal showed the strength of the community.
“I think everybody pulled through OK,” she said. “Everybody checked on their neighbors. And everybody pulled together. It was just really very touching.”
Hughes isn’t sure whether there was any sort of serendipity at work, to test the utility’s backup plans and the community’s cohesion to get through tough times. But she can’t help but notice that the diesel-fueled electrical-generating system nearly failed just when the utility was finalizing a plan to build a $4.3 million powerplant that uses wood as fuel, harvested from the surrounding forest; instead of some 250,000 gallons of diesel, at a cost, this year, of $6 a gallon, which must be brought by barge up the Yukon River every summer.
“It’s so weird that we have all of these plans, and we’ve been putting them into action. And for this to happen – it’s like a fluke.”
GZ Utility officials estimate the new biomass-fueled combined heat and power will save the community nearly half a million dollars annually by reducing the amount of diesel used to generate electricity by about half.