A small Alaskan co-op is proving that wind, solar and storage can succeed even in the frozen tundra north of the Arctic Circle.

“It’s definitely challenging, but if we can do it, anybody can,” says Tom Atkinson, general manager and CEO of 843-member Kotzebue Electric Association.

The co-op sits on a sandbar at the end of the Baldwin Peninsula in the Kotzebue Sound, more than 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle in a remote place that can only be reached by plane or, during summer months, by boat. More than 70% of its members are Inupiat—indigenous Alaskans who have lived in the region for over 10,000 years.

KEA’s journey to energy independence began in 1997, when it installed three 66-kilowatt wind turbines. It later added 14 more outside of Kotzebue, one of Alaska’s first wind farms. In July 2020, the co-op combined $1.9 million in federal, tribal and local government grants with $700,000 of its own capital funds to replace 532 kilowatts of those first-generation turbines with solar panels and inverters that produce an equal amount of power.

KEA doubled its solar resources with a 600-kW array that came online in June, Alaska’s second largest solar farm.

The co-op is seeking federal grants from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation to fund two 1-MW turbines, which combined with two existing large units, would produce about 5 million kWh of energy per year.

“If we’re ever going to get funding for moving forward, this could be the time,” Atkinson says.

The community’s remote location means it will cost about $12 million to install new turbines because of the special cranes and equipment that must be shipped in to lift and secure them into place, Atkinson says. The co-op is looking into federal funding opportunities for that project as well.

KEA’s Native-owned-and-operated contractor, Alaska Native Renewable Industries, has mastered securing inverters and solar panels in the ground despite the permafrost.

“There are incredible challenges in trying to drill holes in the tundra to hold solar panels,” Atkinson says. “The crews work out in the cold when the tundra is frozen to secure the panels to a ground screw that’s about 8 to 9 feet deep.”

Any excess energy that is generated from the panels is stored for emergency use in KEA’s 1.2-MW/950 kWh lithium-ion battery that was connected in 2015. The co-op, which relies on its own microgrid, is working to get a second battery about four times that size.

Atkinson credits partnerships for KEA renewables success, including the region’s largest employer, Red Dog Mine, one of the largest lead and zinc mines in the world.

“That’s a one of the most interesting parts of the story, that mining in the region is helping to develop renewable resources,” he says. “We may not all share the same interests, but we all try to help each other. It is an attitude created by our remoteness and the culture and one of the things I appreciate the most about living here.”

In addition to helping the environment, Kotzebue’s efforts to boost renewable energy are helping keep rates steady for its consumer-members by decreasing the need to buy diesel fuel, which is subject to extreme price volatility.

“In 2022, we displaced 400,000 gallons of diesel with renewable energy,” Atkinson said. “Right now, the renewables are keeping the rates stable. If we can get to 50% or 60% renewables, it will free us from the volatility of the price of diesel and give our community more energy security and sustainability for the future.”

That’s especially important in a community where prices for basic goods are astronomically high because of the difficulty of bringing in basic staples. Gasoline is about $8 a gallon, and a gallon of milk is around $10, Atkinson says.

“Life in general is very expensive up here,” he says. “We’re trying to make life more sustainable, and renewable energy is a huge part of that.”

Atkinson says the co-op is also trying to preserve the community’s unique culture, even as climate change threatens its landscape.

“Our weather is getting more stormy and unpredictable than it has been in the past, with high winds and high waves in the summertime eroding away the land,” he says, adding that city leaders are looking to put future development on higher ground.

“For us, sustainability is being able to sustain our way of life. There are native Alaskan families who have lived here for generations and created a distinct culture. We’re working to make sure that continues."