Whatcom Magazine

Living green: Project with WWU professor looks underground for Alaska energy

The possible answer to the energy needs of a small town on a small island in Alaska lies just below their feet.

Akutan sits in Alaska’s remote Aleutian chain and is home to Mount Akutan, a 4,275-foot volcano that erupted as recently as 1992. With that fresh volcanic activity, there’s plenty of hot water below ground that could be used to generate electricity for the town’s 100 year-round residents and for Trident Seafood’s production plant, the largest such plant in North America, with up to 1,400 employees during peak season.

For power now, more than 4 million gallons of diesel fuel are shipped to the island every year, at a cost of $14 million. Pete Stelling, assistant professor of geology at Western Washington University, is working to make Akutan much less dependent on the fuel by tapping the island’s renewable geothermal energy.

“While we can’t entirely eliminate fuel imports to the island, we can reduce the amounts,” he says.

The island setting is familiar turf for Stelling. The Boulder, Colo., native studied igneous rocks and volcanoes for his doctorate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As part of his graduate work, he helped create a geologic map for Akutan.

That led to an invitation for Stelling to join the Akutan Geothermal Exploration Project. Stelling says there’s a plan in place to tap the geothermal energy, but the team is working to secure additional funding before they drill further and determine where a power plant should be located. The plant would extract hot water, use it to produce electricity, then return the water back underground.

It’s possible, too, that geothermal heat could be used to operate greenhouses, enabling the islanders to raise their own fruits and vegetables.

“The average geothermal project takes six years, but this one has taken longer because the logistics are more challenging,” Stelling says. “My guess is that it will be another three years before a power plant is built, but it’s hard to estimate.”

Stelling teaches geothermal energy at WWU and is a member of Western’s Institute for Energy Studies, where students approach the study of energy through a blend of academic fields, including science, technology and engineering, along with economics, business management and public policy.

Stelling has looked briefly into using Mount Baker’s geothermal energy, but that prospect is impeded by such obstacles as heavy vegetation.

“Still, it does look like one of the more promising areas in the state,” he says. “My hope is to get some undergraduate and masters students to participate in future exploration at Mount Baker.”