Metlakatla’s ailing power grid got a boost on Monday after a new generator arrived, allowing authorities to roll back calls for power conservation.
The community typically relies on its 4-megawatt hydroelectric dam to power homes and businesses. But as a cold snap gripped Southeast Alaska, leading more residents to plug in heaters, the community turned to its 3-megawatt diesel generator to help handle the increased load.
Then, on Dec. 18, the generator failed, causing widespread outages. Crews were able to restore power a few hours later, but the generator remained offline. That left Metlakatla with just over half of its power generation capacity intact.
Officials called on residents to unplug or power down any nonessential devices, including Christmas lights. Metlakatla Mayor Albert Smith says he knows it was a big ask just a few days before the holiday.
“I thank each and every one of them for sacrificing their light, their Christmas lights, and I was very, very happy to put out a notice on Christmas Eve that they could turn on their Christmas lights — the indoor lights and their Christmas trees and stuff — as the weather had warmed up, and the load had come down a little bit,” Smith said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Smith says the community was able to secure an emergency rental generator on Monday through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Samson Tug and Barge. He says Metlakatla Power and Light crews got it hooked up shortly after it arrived. But by then, it was only needed for backup since the hydroelectric dam was providing enough power to meet demand.
It’s a temporary fix — the new generator has just about half of the capacity of the broken-down one. But Smith says for now, the community can get back to normal, though he warns that power conservation might be necessary again if the mercury drops.
“I’m sure we’re going to have more cold snaps coming, and that’s when the hydro system is being strained,” Smith said. “Winter is just starting for us, so we are still going to have to continue to work and pull together, and I’m sure proud of our people for doing that.”
Though it looked initially like the old generator had bitten the dust for good, Smith says Metlakatla Power and Light crews are disassembling the unit to see if repairs can be made. There’s no word yet on whether it can be revived.
In the longer term, Smith says Metlakatla is working to access grant funds it was awarded about a year ago to purchase a new, permanent generator to backstop the grid.