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City of Unalaska teams up with local processing plant to upgrade island’s electrical grid

Maggie Nelson
Some recent outages had been directly linked to the old equipment, but with these upgrades, those interruptions should go away, said acting public utilities director Steve Tompkins.

The Unalaska Department of Public Utilities is upgrading electrical equipment that’s caused some of the island’s recent power outages.

The new, more robust transformers will be able to better handle the harsh Aleutian weather, according to acting public utilities director Steve Tompkins. They’re also equipped for possible upgrades to the island’s energy grid, such as renewable energy from nearby Makushin Volcano.

“If we do end up putting more current through because of geothermal then this equipment is going to be able to take that,” Tompkins said.

Some recent outages had been directly linked to the old equipment, but with these upgrades, those interruptions should go away, said Tompkins.

The new equipment is costing the city around $110,000. For the most part, Tompkins said, that’s being paid for with the city budget, as well as some funding through the geothermal project.

To complete the upgrades, the city is working with local processing plant Westward Seafoods. That’s because, in order to replace the transformers, they have to cut the power to each of the five electrical cabinets that house the equipment, said Tompkins.

And to do that without causing outages across the island, he said they have to do what’s called “cogeneration” with the processing plant.

“By Westward Seafoods pushing energy out, we could lower the powerhouse down to a very low load,” he said. “And so now it's safe to isolate these [cabinets] — not only safe to isolate them, but it makes it possible to isolate them.”

Tompkins said the city’s been working on the transformer project for several months. The parts were designed and ordered in early spring, but they didn’t all arrive until last month. Then they had to wait until things quieted down for Westward, when the processor could afford to supply power to the city.

The city hopes to have the project completed around the new year, before Unalaska’s fishing industry moves into “A” season for cod and pollock — and the processing plant no longer has the capacity to help power the island. But that timeline depends on things like weather, when Westward can supply that power and how each installation goes, Tompkins said.

He said, so far, the project is going smoothly.

With help from local service provider, OptimERA, the first cogeneration didn’t lead to any power outages.

There are four more cogeneration events scheduled to complete the project. Tompkins said the island could experience outages as they continue the work.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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