Local Hire Powers Kotzebue Wind Energy Project

It takes special people to do hard work in below zero temperatures day after day and still call their job fun. But that’s the construction crew at Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA) for you. They’ve been battling the cold all winter to prepare the wind farm site for seven new turbines.

“I’m having fun,” said Cliff Gregg, one of the newer members of the crew. “Very nice people here I work with.”

That spirit seems to infect everyone at KEA, where teamwork has been essential in moving the wind project forward. All employees are involved, including those in the office who help with necessary purchase orders and reports, and hosting lots of consultants. The regular plant operators help prepare equipment before it’s taken to the site. There have been a number of people hired for temporary help, and work with other companies in the community. “Everybody’s been important on it,” said Philip Stalker, a carpenter who has been working with the construction crew all winter. “It was a whole lot of teamwork, different people at different times.”

local_pic02Out in the field, teamwork helps keep everyone safe while doing a difficult job. And part of the fun is pulling together to get things done well that you couldn’t do alone. “We got to lift up a three-ton turbine rotor and we got it up there fast and safely,” Gregg said of recent work. The crew used a forklift for that heavy job.

Mounting the turbines and rotors on towers laid on the ground was one of the final tasks in preparing to hoist the new towers into the wind. Work began after the tundra froze last October.

Major construction work is done in winter to protect the land. Special foundations are needed for buildings and the wind towers to prevent thawing the permafrost. KEA hired Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation (KIC) to work with its crew, drilling holes and setting the special pilings. Some of the pilings are set 30 feet down.

One of the main tasks this winter was construction of seven special control houses, one for each turbine. These 6 x 8 foot “brain boxes” shield the special electronic programming equipment, keeping it safe from harsh weather. They also provide KEA employees with a sheltered place to work.

local_pic01The programming controls sense when there is enough wind, and release a brake to let the blades spin. When the blades are spinning fast enough to produce power, the automatic controls engage the turbine to start feeding energy to Kotzebue. KEA staff will be able to monitor these controls from the main office in Kotzebue.

Stalker said it’s good to have the work. In Kotzebue, “there are very few jobs in construction like this,” he said. An experienced carpenter, Stalker also enjoys learning about some of the wiring for the wind equipment.

The co-op believes that as the wind energy industry grows in Alaska, the experience gained by local workers and companies here will help them get work installing wind projects for other communities.

“I’m really glad we have such skilled and hard-working people here in Kotzebue,” said KEA General Manager Brad Reeve.

Bringing jobs to rural Alaska is one of the reasons KEA is pursuing wind energy development. Reeve says this winter proved the value of hiring locally.

“Having people on the project who are used to our conditions has really helped keep it moving through harsh weather this winter,” he said.

Those working in the field this winter certainly have a new perspective on the wind towers, and can take pride in their part in getting them into operation. Gregg says that from town the towers and blades looked pretty small. But he’s seen them close up now. The towers rise 85 feet above the ground. Each of the blades is 25 feet long, and 320 pounds. “A lot heavier than you think, just looking at them,” Gregg said.

It’s taken a lot of energy by a lot of people working through a harsh winter to move all that heavy equipment around and get the new turbines ready. Next winter, it will be the turbines putting out energy when the cold winds blow.