Galena hopes solar energy will reduce cost of generating power
Tribe, city, school district build renewable-energy facilities to offset use of diesel to produce electricity
A new solar-energy project in Galenapromises to help the Yukon River community reduce its dependence on expensive diesel-fired power generation. Tribal officials worked with the city and school district to complete the project. And they’re now considering building a bigger solar-energy facility.
Work on the 50-kilowatt solar array was completed last month, and it’s now being hooked up to the small grid operated by the City of Galena’s electric utility. Louden Tribal Administrator Brooke Sanderson says if all goes well, the solar panels will begin generating power next week.
“It’s definitely an exciting project for the community,” she said in an interview Monday.
Exciting, because the new system will displace diesel fuel that until now has been the only way to generate electricity in the western Interior community of about 400 people. The cost of diesel has been rising steadily in recent months, and it’s even more expensive because it’s brought to the community by barge up the Yukon River.
“The reduction in diesel fuel is hopefully going to be really huge for the city of Galena,” Sanderson said, “because that’s a major cost they have to incur every year.”
That’s the main reason why Galena utility customers pay more than 72 cents per kilowatt hour -- about three times what Golden Valley Electric Association members pay, and five times what Anchorage-based Chugach Electric members pay. And even though solar panels won’t produce much electricity during the winter, a Fairbanks-based energy expert says they make up for that in the spring, summer and fall.
“People always argue ‘Well, what are you going to do during the winter months?’ ” says Dave Messier, who serves as rural energy coordinator for the Tanana Chiefs Conference. “And we tell them, ‘Well, the same thing that the community’s been doing for the last 50, 60 years -- run diesel generators.’ But during the summer, at least, we’ve got a ton of free energy that’s hitting the earth.”
Messier’s been helping the Louden tribe get funding for the project as part of Tanana Chiefs’ larger effort to help rural communities reduce their use of diesel with reliable, easy-to-maintain renewable-energy systems equipped with backup battery power.
“Up in Hughes,” he said, “we have a systemthat’s been running with diesels off for portions of the year for periods of up to 12 hours, and it’s in its second year.”
Sanderson says if the 50-kilowatt project in Galena performs well, it could serve as a sort of pilot project for a larger 1.2-megawatt solar array with 1-megawatt battery that the tribe is considering building. Tribal officials learned last month that the Federal Department of Energy awarded a $2.25 million grant to help pay for the project, which is expected to save 95,000 gallons of diesel annually.
“The smaller-scale project -- the idea is that it would inform some of the management decisions on the large-scale project, because this is new,” she said.
Tim Kalke, a Galena-based renewable-energy advocate, agrees.
“We’re excited to see this pilot project get up and running, and see how it actually goes,” said Kalke, the general manager of Sustainable Energy for Galena Alaska, or SEGA, a nonprofit jointly run by the tribe, City of Galena and the city school district.
“And then, as winter and next spring come about, (it will ) help us really make more firm decisions for the larger project,” he said.
Kalke and others in the community established SEGA nine years ago to find alternatives to diesel-fired generators that the military handed over to the city after it closed Galena Air Force Station in 2008. He says they jointly decided to build a biomass-energy plant that burns wood to heats the former base that now houses the Galena Interior Learning Academy, or GILA, a residential vocational school.
Kalke says the success of that project and the solar pilot project may build support for taking the next step on a bigger solar project.
“It really involves all the main entities in the community -- the tribe, city, school and SEGA and the people,” he said. “Because, ultimately, the individuals who have their roots deep within the community are the folks who are going to have to keep it up and running.”
Sanderson agrees, and says that’s another benefit the project would bring: enabling young people to learn about renewable energy and maybe get a job maintaining and operating the facility.
“The cost of living in is so extremely high out in the villages that having some good-paying jobs and also improving the quality of life is definitely going to attract more people into staying where they grew up," she said.