Today, much of our lives are powered by electricity. For example, you are most likely reading this very message from a device that required being plugged in to an electricity outlet. In fact, most of the appliances in your home as well as the equipment at your place of business are powered by electricity. Let’s face it, today electricity is more than just a convenience, it’s a necessity.
Truly it’s a hard life without electricity, and no one knew that truth better than the generations past. It’s hard to believe, but not that long ago many rural communities were left in the dark feeling powerless, literally. As the rural people of Kotzebue fought for access to energy they realized that standing together for the cause was the best way to serve the needs of the entire community. 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. Then, in 1949 a group of local men got together to start a local electric power cooperative and made arrangements to get a loan from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).
The Kotzebue Electric Association was founded by names that 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; 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.
In the early 1950’s plans to get KEA off the ground started, during which, the Havenstrike Mining Company of Candle brought two generators (75 & 100 kva) to Kotzebue and set up a few distribution lines to deliver electricity to several homes previously without. Thankfully by the mid 1950’s, KEA was up and running with its first generator (50 kva), located near the present Alascom site, and setting its own distribution lines. Those first lines were buit to serve our member along Front Street.
In February 1956, KEA signed and executed a loan contract and mortgage with REA, and by the end of 1956, test runs on generators in KEA’s new plant were completed and 65 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. As KEA membership began to expand additions were made to the original plant and new generators were added to serve the growing demand for electricity. In 1990, an office building was added near the plant, and KEA’s main office moved into new quarters.
Since then, KEA has made developing new sources of energy for the future our priority. Due to the high costs of fuel, and declining support from the state legislature, it has been hard work to keep energy costs in rural Alaska at reasonable levels. That’s exactly why 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.
Currently, 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.