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Bringing Light to Kotzebue: The History of Kotzebue Electric Association

As you sit reading this on your computer screen, take a moment to think about how much of your day-to-day life is powered by electricity. At home, a host of appliances are probably hooked into electrical outlets around your house, including the computer you are using right now;photo_hist at work, you might use a computer or some of the same appliances you use at home — a coffee maker for instance. Our light and some of our heat come to us through wires strung throughout town.

But the electrical current that keeps us going has only been in Kotzebue for a relatively short period of time; Kotzebue Electric Association has only been around since the 1950s.

During its lifetime, KEA has helped bring electric power to most of Kotzebue.

Electric power was first made available via small generators owned and operated by Kotzebue businesses. Arctic Literage, Alaska Communications Systems (now Alascom), Rotman Stores, the hospital and Archie Ferguson were among those who supplied and sold excess power from their business generators to homes nearby.

Around 1949, a group of Kotzebue individuals began sending out feelers to find out how to start a local electric power cooperative. The group started making arrangements to get a loan from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).

The original incorporators of Kotzebue Electric Association were a group of men whose names are closely tied to much of Kotzebue’s history. Archie R. Ferguson, a noted Alaskan Bush pilot; Nels G. Hanson, the original owner of the Hanson Trading Co.; Edward Ward, a communications specialist working for the FAA; Thomas Richards, the first commercially licensed Native pilot; Jack O. Jones, a local businessman; and York Wilson, a reindeer herd owner, were all involved. Along with Arthur J. Flatt, a mechanic for Ferguson; Delos H. Wesbrook, the administrator for the California Friends Mission in Kotzebue; and Charles E. McGowan, an FAA employee who set up the first local commercial freezer units, these men made up the first KEA Board of Directors.

Around the same time plans were being made to get KEA off the ground, Havenstrike Mining Company of Candle brought generators to Kotzebue. The generators had been used by the company in their gold mining operations. Two generators — 75 and 100 kva — were set up.

A few distribution lines were set up by Havenstrike to deliver electricity to several homes that had been without power.

KEA was also busy getting set up. It’s first generator — 50 kva — was set up near the present Alascom site. In the mid-1950s, KEA started setting its own distribution lines; the first was built to serve members along Front Street.

Construction at first was done with very little mechanical support. Linemen using hand-blocks would tighten the lines from one side of a block and wouldn’t be able to see entanglements farther back.

The high number of dogs in town at the time made matters even worse. As workers struggled to raise lines around town, dogs on chains would often cross lines. Several dogs were accidentally raised into the air along with the lines after their chains became tangled.

In late February 1956, KEA signed and executed a loan contract and mortgage with REA. By the end of that year, test runs on generators in KEA’s new plant were completed and 65 consumer/members were on line. Red Mullally became the first General Manager.

At around the same time, KEA bought Havenstrike’s electric business and consolidated the two operations.

Since then, KEA has grown along with its members’ needs. Along the way, an addition was made to the original plant, and new generators have served a growing demand for electricity. In 1990, an office building was added near the plant, and KEA’s main office moved into new quarters.

In recent years, KEA has spent much time and energy on developing new sources of energy for the future. Because of the high costs of fuel, and because of declining support from the state legislature to keep energy costs in rural Alaska at reasonable levels, KEA has worked to become a pioneer in the use of wind energy in an arctic environment. KEA’s wind energy program provides an alternative source of energy with the potential to keep electric costs at affordable levels.

Today, Kotzebue Electric Association has 840 members, and generates over 18 million kilowatt hours per year. Getting electricity into the rural areas of Alaska has been a triumph not only of technology, but also of the people involved both now and then.