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As fuel prices rise, rural Alaska looks at alternative energy sources

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - The historic gold mining community of Nome is just 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle and for much of the year, it's cloaked in darkness or clouds.

Common sense says it's an unlikely spot to take advantage of solar energy, but an Alaska Native corporation is betting it is.

Fossil fuel prices have risen so high in some rural Alaska villages that projects that seemed impractical a few years ago, including solar panels on a Bering Straits Native Corporation office building, now pencil out.

''It's not going to take us off the grid, but it will help,'' said Jerald Brown, general manager of the Bering Straits Native Corporation, which in November installed 93 solar panels on its headquarters building in Nome.

Small utilities and some of their customers are taking risks to lower their diesel-based heating and electricity bills. Where possible, they are forming partnerships and applying for public financing to build wind farms.

Solar and wind aren't the only projects under consideration. In southwest Alaska, Bethel-area villages facing huge heating bills are investigating commercial firewood harvests along the Kuskokwim River.

''The game is much more exciting now because there are new trigger points where [renewable energy] projects can be economic,'' said Dennis Witmer, a mechanical engineering professor for the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who studies renewable projects for rural Alaska.

Bering Straits worked with a Fairbanks engineering firm to design its solar panel installation after the company's board made renewable energy projects, especially solar and wind, a priority.

''When I crunched the numbers, all of a sudden it made economic sense, as well as making sense from a green perspective,'' Brown said.

In addition to installing solar panels, Bering Straits is working with Nome's Native village corporation to attempt to finance a wind farm that could reduce Nome's reliance on diesel-powered electricity.

For now, the renewable energy projects in Nome are mainly solar or small wind turbines installed by individual customers.

''Our goal is to displace as much diesel fuel during the months of March through October,'' said Mitch Erickson, executive director of the Nome Chamber of Commerce.

Bering Strait's solar panels should knock 10 percent to 15 percent off its headquarters' power consumption on an annual basis.

The building's lighting system is also being retrofitted. That could bump the reduction in power consumption to 25 percent, Brown said.

The payback period for installing the panels is about 12 years - less if utility rates continue to rise. The panels have a 25-year warranty.

In the past few years, the business rate for electrical power in Nome has risen from 23 to 32 cents per kilowatt hour, he said. A typical Anchorage business served by Chugach Electric Association is charged 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

''It's getting pretty much unbearable,'' Brown said.

The company received no grants for the $175,000 solar panel project but will receive a federal renewable energy tax credit and favorable depreciation rate that will defray 60 percent of the project's installation cost.

The solar panels will not store or transmit energy for the local electrical grid, he said.

Bering Straits owns other buildings in Nome and outlying areas and will consider additional solar power if this project goes well, he said.

Several people in Nome have begun tinkering with small-scale wind and solar projects to lower their bills.

Erickson, with the Nome Chamber of Commerce, is installing solar panels at his home for space heating and a wind turbine to provide electrical power for his hot water system.

Others in Nome are experimenting, using products ranging from ''evacuated tube'' solar panels to horizontal wind turbines.

''As a chamber, we felt it was easier to put our energy into finding a product that will help our members and community cut their business and home heating costs,'' Erickson said.

He said the chamber hopes to have ''good data'' by next summer to determine the most cost-effective projects.