Over a ridge, just out of sight of the city of Kotzebue, nineteen towers rise hundreds of feet into the air like oversize cranes, arms rotating in a steady breeze off the Chukchi Sea. The turbines make up Alaska's oldest commercial wind farm, supplying about 20 percent of the community's electricity.
Kotzebue, a mostly Inupiat Eskimo community of 3,200, is a mixture of old and new: caribou antlers from subsistence hunts are piled next to brand-new satellite dishes; splintered dog sleds sit in yards next to new trucks and snowmachines. Solar panels are perched on the roofs of battered wood-frame homes. The community is perched on a spit at the tip of the Baldwin Peninsula thirty-three miles above the Arctic Circle, connected to the treeless mainland by a causeway and a two-lane bridge. The wind farm is four miles away.
Even Kotzebue's power system is a mix: a hybrid of diesel, wind, and solar created by the necessity of keeping the plant as cost- and fuel-efficient as possible, says Brad Reeve, general manager of Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA).
"We try to use every ounce, every BTU out of a gallon [of diesel]," he says.
Kotzebue's grid stands alone, like those of more than two hundred other villages in rural Alaska, says Gwen Holdmann, director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Since the 1960s, diesel generators have been used to power most villages. Because most of Alaska's rural communities are so isolated, it doesn't make sense to connect their grids, so most also stand alone, islands of light and heat in the vast wilderness.
Over the past decade, Holdmann says, more villages have turned to renewable energy to help them achieve greater energy independence and cut costs. Today, about seventy village systems are powered in part by renewable energy, including small hydro, wind, geothermal, and solar.
Kotzebue was one of the first.
"They used to find other names for us: isolated islanded grids," Reeve says. "But now it's microgrids, which is the new snazzy word that came in after [Superstorm] Sandy went through and kind of changed people's perceptions."
The 2012 hurricane blacked out much of the East Coast, but islands of light here and there from localized energy grids caught the attention of officials.
Now, Holdmann says, microgrids are an emerging trend, and Alaska is at the forefront.
"Alaska is number one globally when it comes to deployed microgrids incorporating renewables," she says. "That is a big...