Reliable Power through Alaska’s Long Winter Nights

Alaska’s southern coast is regularly bombarded by heavy weather, especially during the dark winter months. The resulting rolling blackouts made the long nights untenable for the residents of Cordova, who back in 1978 took matters – and power – into their own hands by forming Cordova Electric Cooperative to take over the existing power infrastructure and stand it on stronger, more reliable footing.

Cordova is a case study of cooperative success. In fact, says CEO Clay Koplin, “I don’t think the cooperative principles have ever been more important.”

Formed voluntarily with open membership, Cordova is an independent organization that delivers reliable, affordable power to its widely fluctuating population: Cordova’s energy demands nearly triple during the summer fishing season to 9 megawatts (MW), supporting an industry that’s responsible for 90% of the community’s economy.

An average of 70% of Cordova’s power is generated by two summer-peaking hydroelectric plants, with Humpback Creek generating 1.25 MW and Power Creek generating 6 MW. Making up the difference during high demand and lower production months is a 10.8 MW diesel generation facility. CoBank was key in financing Power Creek.

“When government funding didn’t come through and we were facing insolvency, CoBank stepped in and offered us interest-only payments for a significant length of time, saying they didn’t want our keys, but they liked our vision,” says Clay. “They were a strong partner when we really needed one.”

In addition to adding generating capacity, Cordova has moved all its power lines underground to ensure reliability, an unconventional and visionary undertaking but creating one of the most reliable grids in the world – in the last five years alone it’s survived four earthquakes, four tsunami warnings, a volcanic eruption and extreme coastal storms without a single outage caused by these events. The cooperative has also converted all street lighting to LED, reducing energy demand through Alaska’s long, dark nights.

“Because we’re a cooperative, our democratically elected board, acting in good faith, can try unconventional things that the industry may say is too expensive or isn’t best practice, but it works for our membership,” says Clay.

The board’s insightful direction and management’s effective implementation have borne fruit: the cooperative distributed its first capital credit payments to members in 2018 and has continued to distribute excess margins to its members every year since.

Every decision Cordova makes has its community in mind, from establishing a special rate structure to attract commercial fishing that resulted in a tripling of the fish tax to $1.5 million, to leveraging a state-of-the art conference facility to entice world-class conferences, to involving local students in hydroelectric projects to expand their education.

“In our organizational chart, our members are at the top, so we look for incremental things we can do to add value to where they live,” says Clay. “This culture of meeting the community’s needs holistically is only possible because we’re a cooperative.”