The exact cause of the holiday power outages in the Yupik village of Savoonga has been a bit of a mystery. Winter storms and whipping winds are nothing new on St. Lawrence Island, after all.
But could changing temperatures be the culprit? And if so, are more power failures to come?
Today the chief executive for the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative said the utility has concluded that a "lack of sea ice was a major contributor" to the outage.
That's because winter winds may have carried sea salt from waters that are normally covered with ice, coating and freezing to power equipment, said AVEC executive Meera Kohler.
"This could very well be climate change impact but determining that is above my pay grade," Kohler said in an e-mail. "I do think that the state climate change subcommittee (if they still exist) should consider launching some sort of forensic investigation into this and, if climate change is determined to be a factor, suggest what the state should do to adapt or mitigate."
Here's her latest update on the Savoonga outages, emphasis added:
Tuesday January 4 Update issues at 1:00 p.m.
There have been no outages in Savoonga since 10:00 am yesterday. AVEC is procuring power washing equipment for shipment to Savoonga and expects the materials to be there Thursday, January 6. We will commence washing hardware such as insulators and transformer bushings as soon as possible in order to remove salt spray that has been driven into the equipment. One of the two linemen in Savoonga will be returning to Anchorage tomorrow if conditions remain stable during the next day and another lineman will be arriving in Savoonga Thursday along with the power washing equipment.
There have been rumors and speculation circulating that AVEC's generation and/or distribution systems have been damaged by the storms and I wish to make it clear that we have been unable to find any substantive damage at this point. Having had no prior experience similar to this in the 42 years that AVEC has been serving rural Alaska, we are trying to understand exactly what happened.
Winter storms are not at all a rare occurrence in village Alaska, and especially on St. Lawrence Island. In this particular instance however, a severe winter storm occurred with high wind from the northeast and salt spray was picked up from the ocean that is normally covered with sea ice. The extreme cold caused the salt spray to freeze on electrical equipment. Initial outages were caused by line slap from iced-up conductors, but later problems were caused by electrical arcing through conductive salt. We are concluding that the lack of sea ice was a major contributor to this situation.
AVEC will be consulting with experts in the electric industry to determine what may need to be done in the future to anticipate and mitigate such events.
Temperatures are once again dropping into the zero degree range Tuesday and Wednesday but the winds are not projected to be as strong as they were ten days ago so we hope that there will not be additional protracted outages.
Updates will continue to be issued as conditions change.
I asked Kohler for a little more info on the impact of sea salt on village power equipment. Aren't there windy storms in the summer too? Or is the problem the combination of both salty equipment and freezing temps?
"I think it was the freezing salt spray that was the big issue," she said. "It's rare for salt spray to be blown around at such cold temps. Salt corrosion has long been an issue in the coastal communities but not salt-caused electrical tracking. In my opinion (for what it's worth) during non-freezing blows, salt spray flies around but is continually washed off by successive blows and rain. In this case, the salt spray was slushing up as it was flying and there was no rain to dilute it or wash it off."