The sun struggles to rise over the horizon during the day. Minutes after noon, it finally yields its light over the mountains, shining across the valley below. The cold that had settled in the valley throughout the long night begins to dissipate, the mercury slowly rising towards zero. Snow adorns the spruce boughs and ice fills the river ways. The days are short and within a few hours of rising, the sun has drifted back below the mountains, allowing darkness to reign once more. In the village, smoke arches its way above chimneys, signs of warm homes within. Nestled among the mountains, the log cabins fit in with the landscape, creating an idyllic picture. The land tells the tale of winter, with its booming silence. Yet, not all is quiet. Among it all, beneath that towering grandeur, is the steady hum of a generator. Its noise carrying far in the dense, frigid air.
Following the Steese Highway out of Fairbanks, it isn’t long before one passes the last tether to civilization. About 20 miles to the north, electrical lines cease to exist. Beyond that invisible line, anyone who wishes to have electrical power must obtain it through their own means. This is far from unusual in Alaska, where many villages are hundreds of miles from the nearest road system and major urban areas. Rural villages often devise their own method of collective power generation. This involves the use of large diesel generators as the main source of power, with lines being distributed to homes within the community.
Located about 275 miles to the north of Fairbanks, Wiseman falls within the category of those without supplied power. Unlike many rural communities, Wiseman does not have a collective source of electricity. Instead, each resident is responsible for setting up their own system. While individualized, each system follows roughly the same template. The core of the system is the battery bank, allowing people to store and draw any power that is generated. Residents try to harness as much power as they can from the sun and wind, thereby minimizing energy costs. But in an area that has minimal wind and a period where the sun dips below the horizon for weeks on end, it is inevitable that an alternative source must be used for power generation. In the instances where solar and wind do not suffice, residents will use a gas or diesel generator.
Among the current residents of Wiseman, my electricity needs and usage are far below that of the others. Still the average resident in Wiseman still uses a fraction of the energy of those in urban locales. With my daily usage consisting of two LED lights at night, along with the occasional charging of a laptop, tablet, and camera, my electrical needs are minimal. My sole 140 watt panel is able to provide enough to power the battery bank for about 8.5-9 months of the year without me needing to run the generator.
In the darkness of mid-winter, every few days I must run the generator to charge the batteries back up once more. I hate running the generator. For me, the generator is the antithesis of why I choose to live in this region. It’s not simple, its complex. It requires input from expensive and nonrenewable resources. But for the time being, it is something that I must continue to use if I desire to power my laptop to write posts like these. If it wasn’t for computers, I think I’d just do away with electricity during the dark months, using Aladdin lamps for lighting purposes.
There have been residents in the recent past who have eschewed electricity, deciding to live without. For some this means using alternative sources of light such as battery powered lanterns. For others this meant going without light at all, besides the dim glow of a headlamp. Of course, most of Wiseman’s past residents have lived without electricity. In the gold rush era and beyond, candles and lamps powered by kerosene, coal oil, and propane were used for illumination. With the introduction of electrical devices into modern society, those days seem to be a thing of the past.
In an area where energy costs remain high, it pays to be cognizant of the amount of energy coming in and the amount going out. Such awareness ends up with most of the community having appliances and materials that are the cutting edge in energy efficiency. With prices unlikely to drop in the future, that will likely continue to hold true over the coming years. Who knows, maybe one day there’ll be a way in which I can maintain my current setup without running a generator. A boy can dream.