Unalaska tribe gets federal money for geothermal project to source energy from active volcano

The 6,000-foot Makushin volcano’s molten magma could provide a fuel source for the Unalaska, a city of 4,500 people. (Photo by Givey Kochanowski/U.S. Department Of Energy)

For decades, green energy proponents have been trying to harness geothermal energy from an active volcano on Unalaska Island. And although there have been hurdles trying to bring geothermal energy to Unalaska, the clean energy source is one step closer to fruition.

The 6,000-foot Makushin volcano last erupted in the 1990s and its molten magma could provide a fuel source for the Aleutian community.

The Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska has received more than $2 million in federal dollars to go towards the Makushin Geothermal Project to harness a local source to power the island’s community and industry. It’s part of the $1.5 trillion spending bill that President Biden signed on March 15.

Unalaska is a city of around 4,500 people that’s host to several large fish processing plants and the Port of Dutch Harbor. The city has relied exclusively on diesel to power the electrical grid since World War II but has sought new power sources for decades.

The power project is being led by Ounalashka Corp./Chena Power, LLC, a joint partnership between Unalaska’s Native village corporation and a Fairbanks-based private energy firm.

Although the Qawalangin Tribe is not a partner with OCCP, the tribe’s chief executive Chris Price says they are helping out and providing funding.

“We came up with this proposal to Congress to support the geothermal project and we were able to secure $2.5 million to go towards geothermal diversification, education programs, and to support the Makushin Geothermal Project,” Price said.

The city currently uses around 3 million gallons of diesel per year, according to Richard Owen, the city’s powerhouse supervisor.

The city signed an agreement to purchase about $16 million of electrical energy per year from OCCP in 2020 to replace its reliance on diesel. That amount would increase each year.

Unalaska City Manager Erin Reinders has said the city’s ratepayers would likely be paying slightly more initially, but the cost would go down over time, especially if industrial customers — like seafood processors — get on board with purchasing geothermal produced electricity.

The three main processors in Unalaska largely provide their own power by burning diesel generators and have not agreed to any purchase arrangement with the city, but Unisea wrote a letter of interest for the project — at least in principle.

Tribal President Harriet Berikoff said she is optimistic the fish plants would see the writing on the wall and get on board with locally produced energy that would bring rates down.

“I hope our electricity becomes cheaper, and everybody else kind of joins in together,” Berikoff said. “We’ve been [talking for years and years], but I’m sure the canneries and the other businesses will eventually join and support us.”

Originally, the geothermal project was expected to be completed by the summer of 2024.

But OCCP has needed several extensions. The most recent was in February; now the project is expected to be complete in 2027.

The City of Unalaska, the Qawalangin Tribe, and the Ounalashka Corp. all say they are working together more closely to capitalize on an agreement they signed to move forward united on some of the community’s key infrastructure projects.

And Berikoff said that will help pave the way for the future.

“Well, I’m hoping that, as a team, we can all work together and make it work,” Berikoff said. “I’m sure it’s gonna work, with the rest of us trying to do the best for the community here.”

Representatives from OCCP did not respond to several requests for comment.

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