The Electrical Worker online
December 2012

Greening the Kodiak State: IBEW Builds Alaska's Biggest Wind Farm
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For a state awash in oil and gas, filling up your car in Alaska can sure be pricey. Drivers spend an average $4.25 a gallon, and heating a home in -50° F weather will shrink your bank account faster than the receding daylight hours of an Arctic winter.

Energy prices are even higher in the more remote interior part of the state.

"We're always feeling an energy crunch in this town," says Anchorage Local 1547 Business Representative Karm Singh, who works out of the union's Fairbanks office.

For Alaskans fed up with being at the mercy of global oil prices, diversifying the Kodiak State's energy portfolio and going green isn't just about helping the environment — it is about financial relief for strapped customers and utilities.

Weaning the state off the exclusive use of carbon fuels has been one top energy goal for lawmakers in Alaska for more than three years. In 2009 then-Gov. Sarah Palin announced the most ambitious renewable energy plan in the nation, calling for half of the state's power supply to come from renewable sources by 2025, including solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy.

And last fall, Alaska took one step closer to meeting this benchmark with the completion of the state's largest wind farm.

The Eva Creek Wind Farm lies in the midst of Alaska's interior wilderness, just outside Denali National Park in the shadow of Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. With 12 turbines in place, it will generate 25 megawatts of power, eventually providing 20 percent of Golden Valley Electric Association's peak load. The association services Fairbanks and large rural swaths of the Interior.

Running at full peak, Eva Creek is expected to save customers $13.6 million over the next 20 years.

"When gas prices shoot up, we really need that wind," says Singh.

Making it possible was a team of 35 Local 1547 members, who battled the mud, cold and isolation to get the project online and operational.

"This site is basically in the middle of nowhere," Singh says. The only way to get equipment to the location was by rail or plane — the closest approximation to a road being an old dirt mining trail that hadn't been in used in decades.

The other challenge they faced was a common one for anyone drilling a hole or digging a ditch in Alaska: hard, frozen soil known as permafrost.

Mud would also become a problem after drillers discovered that the site sat atop an underground spring, turning trench digging efforts into a battle against the muck. Frequent cold rains didn't help the situation.

"It turned into one big, muddy hole," says Singh.

It wasn't an easy job, but workers for three signatory contractors — Michels, Redi Electric and Diamond Electric — finished the project on time and under budget, with Eva Creek going online last October.

Labor relations on the job were smooth and uneventful, says Singh, who visited the site weekly along with Business Representative Wally Robinson.

"We had our disagreements but both sides were fair with each other and we worked through any problems to make sure the job got done," he says.

Business Manager Mike Hodsdon visited the job site toward the end of the project, congratulating members on a job well done.

At the same time, a six-hour drive south, more than 30 Local 1547 members were laying cable and wiring 11 turbines on Fire Island, just outside Anchorage.

The 17.6 megawatt project, which went online last September, is expected to power up more than 4,000 homes in the greater Anchorage area. The Cook Inlet Region Corporation — the Native Corporation that built the farm — is planning to add another 22 turbines in the next year, which will mean even more clean energy for Alaska's largest city.

When the project broke ground last spring, CIRI initially went with an out-of-state nonunion contractor for the island-side portion of the work. California-based System 3 Inc. not only brought in out-of-state managers but out-of-state workers as well.

"For a project of this size that is so important to Alaska residents, not to hire those same residents is pretty outrageous," says Local 1547 Business Representative Dave Reaves.

The state AFL-CIO and some local officials raised the issue, which soon came to the attention of the state labor department, which investigated.

All linemen and wiremen working in Alaska are required to be state-certified, and it took just one visit from labor department inspectors to convince System 3 to clear out.

"They didn't have enough qualified people," says Reaves. "As soon as they heard about the impending visit, most of their employees vanished."

Signatory contractor Alaska Linebuilders was called in at the last minute, and despite the delay caused by the System 3 fiasco, got it done on time.

And time was of the essence, because a $17 million Recovery Act grant was at stake if the project wasn't completed and online by the federal government's cutoff date.

"We were under major pressure to make up for lost time," says Reaves.

One of the biggest challenges was getting the power to Anchorage-based Chugach Electric Association, which provides power for the area. Two signatory contractors built the tie-in to Chugach's system. Northern Powerline Constructors provided the work on the Anchorage mainland and the wind farm's collector substation, while Cruz Construction ran an armored cable across the Cook Inlet watershed that separates the island from the mainland. Workers had to wait until low tides came in to dig a trench on the sea floor, slowing the process substantially.

Reaves says the IBEW's efforts on the project showed to CIRI and state officials who the best trained, most skilled electrical workers are, and said he feels confident they will soon be returning to install the remaining turbines.

"I see wind becoming a bigger deal for us over the next few years," he says.


The Eva Creek Wind Farm, which lies in the shadow of Mt. McKinley in Alaska, went online last fall, generating 25 megawatts of energy.