When you see it floating in the water, you do a double take. The RivGen is an odd looking contraption with giant pontoons and underwater turbines, anchored in the Kvichak River, one of the main arteries in Bristol Bay. 

But don’t let looks deceive you. It’s a very sophisticated piece of technology that turns river currents into energy, to be fed into the Igiugig electric plant.

The Ocean Renewable Power Company, based in Portland Maine, manufactures this power system.

Chris Sauer, who founded the company, says there’s nothing like the RivGen in the world. And Igiugug, a remote community at the headwaters of the Kvichak, is the first to use it.

After a prototype was tested in Igiugig in 2015, the company improved upon the design and launched its latest model this month. The new RivGen is powerful enough to meet about half the community’s electric needs.

Igiugig, like many off-the-road system communities, has generated most of its power with diesel fuel, which has to be flown or barged in at a cost of about $150,000 a year. The village pays more than $5 a gallon for its fuel, so it’s easy to see how necessity became the mother of invention here.

The Igiugig Village Council is the first tribal government in the nation to get a federal license for a project like this.

This week on Frontiers, we’ll look at how tiny Igiugig, home to about 70 people, was able win millions of federal dollars to develop this project, which holds promise for remote communities all over Alaska and Canada, located next to rivers.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Innovative Igiugig: For generations, the Kvichak River has fed both body and soul with one of the largest red salmon runs in the world. Now the river provides electricity. KTVA’s Dave Leval was in Igiugig for the launch of the RivGen, a project 15 years in the making. 
  • It takes energy to make energy: AlexAnna Salmon and Monty Worthington give us the backstory on RivGen. Salmon is president of the Igiugig Village Council, and Worthington is Alaska project development director for ORPC. A fascinating discussion about how a small community formed many partnerships to reach a daunting goal. Also a look at what’s behind this technology, that borrows from both the aviation industry and offshore oil drilling.
  • Power Cost Equalization Program: AlexAnna Salmon explains how this fund has helped to make power more affordable for Igiugig. But even after PCE subsidies, Igiugig residential customers still pay a rate twice as high as Anchorage.

This year, Governor Mike Dunleavy liquidated this endowment fund and transferred the money into a different savings account. Many rural power customers fear this move could double, or even triple their electric bills. Tim Bradner, who co-authors the Alaska Legislative Digest, joins the conversation. Bradner explains how the endowment benefits both Rural and Urban Alaska.

This week’s show is a good snapshot of an extremely complicated energy landscape, where many Alaskans pay some of the highest electric rates in the nation.

In this state, we are always on the edge of crisis and opportunity, the yin and yang of our existence, where every crisis also creates opportunity.  Such is the case for Igiugig, a community that seems poised to light the way into the future.


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