Aniak residents shocked by quadrupled power bills

A small airport next to a river as seen from above
An aerial view of Aniak (Amazon River Adventure photo via Creative Commons)

In April, Aniak resident Amanda Hoeldt’s electricity bill was $381.95. In May, it was more than $1,100.

“We were very shocked at the price of the power bill because we have a propane stove, we have a wood fireplace,” Hoeldt said. “And, like, it’s April, June. So it’s not like we’re in the middle of January where we have lights on all the time or, like, running the furnace or the water heater or that sort of stuff.”

At Aniak’s school, the electricity bill went from around $7,700 to almost $24,000.

“Just honestly, like, I’m standing in my district office right now and all the lights are off. We’re all working in the dark,” said Madeline Aguillard, superintendent of the Kuspuk School District.

Residents and organizations across Aniak were shocked when their electricity bills quadrupled in May, and that they weren’t officially notified beforehand. The sole warning was posted on the village’s main Facebook page from the personal account of the Aniak Light & Power Company’s president, Darlene Holmberg. She wrote that because of fuel prices, bills were going to be increased by four times or more. Then the post was deleted.

Holmberg did not return multiple calls from KYUK or an email requesting comment.

“I didn’t really pay that much attention to it,” Hoeldt said. “Because, like, it was just a post on Facebook, and kind of just went on with my life. And then we got the power bill.”

As people in the community wrapped their heads around their bills, some started using lanterns; some didn’t pay. People unplugged devices and limited screen time. Some are considering moving.

Dave Diehl owns the Hound House, a local restaurant in a log cabin that he opened in 1994. They run three refrigerators, a big stove, small stove, dough mixer, and an air fryer. He mentioned the region’s compounding cost of energy.

“Gasoline is almost nine bucks a gallon up here. Diesel fuel is almost nine bucks a gallon up here,” Diehl said.

He’s hopeful because the community is resilient. He said that he won’t change prices until he has to, but he also said that this is the biggest hurdle in their 30 years. Right now, they’re not making money. If their power bill continues at this rate, they only have one option.

“Close down, I guess,” Diehl said. “I don’t know. It’s not, we can’t just be working and making a couple of bucks a week.”

More than 10 people reached out to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, the organization that regulates public utilities in the state. Aniak Light & Power, as a private firm and the sole power provider for the village of about 500 people, had to submit filings to the commission before it could raise its rates.

Diehl and other residents tried to dig in and call the commission, but they ran into regulatory code and calculations.

“The thing is, you got to be real educated. You got to be real computer skookum to get your messages across,” Diehl said.

The regulatory commission suggested three key reasons that the cost increased by so much this May.

The first and primary explanation was due to the increase in the fuel costs, which went up by 50%. Residents questioned why their bills then went up by 400%, and why neighboring communities hadn’t seen similar changes.

Steven Jones, a spokesman for the commission, said utility rates can rise to retroactively account for major expenses.

“So sometimes it’s a little bit difficult for people to understand that that is not immediate,” he said. “They say, ‘hey, this is a good break. Now, we should be charged a good price.’ It’s because their utility’s recovering the cost of something that occurred in the past, in some cases, so this better price is not necessarily there yet.”

The second reason is that the utility expects sales to go down in the next few months. The third is that Aniak Light & Power’s finances show a big difference between what it’s spending versus what it is making and it’s hard to pin down exactly why.

The company’s financial deficit started in September, based on records Aniak Light & Power provided to the commission after repeated requests in April.

The records also showed that in 2023, the company’s line loss, or the power lost during transmission and distribution, which customers pay for, frequently surpassed the 12% maximum recommended by the state.

In mid-April, Holmberg wrote a letter to the commission saying the company had again found a discrepancy between how much fuel inventory it was supposed to have and how much it actually had.

The details are little help to the people struggling with the price increases. Big customers include Aniak stores, restaurants, the airport, the post office and the school.

Aguillard, the superintendent, said that the new rate is unaffordable for the draft budget for next year. Though it’s the Kuspuk School District’s hub, Aniak is just one of its nine schools spread across seven villages.

“But we had projected that we were going to budget $380,000 for utilities,” Aguillard said. “However, at a rate of $25,000 a pop, Aniak alone will consume that.”

With this new cost, she’s afraid that they’re going to have to make cuts.

“It’s personnel. It’s personnel that would take the hit,” Aguillard said. “And that’s what we’re afraid of. And we’ve worked really, really hard to keep these positions. To keep the minimal positions that we have.”

The district doesn’t have electives or music or art, but teaches a core curriculum and has a tele-social worker. Staff have already seen an enrollment decline, and now more families are talking about moving.

The higher rates are also affecting the district’s summer school classes. Officials sent a district-wide memo urging employees to turn lights off, as well as unplug microwaves and other devices after use.

“Like, a little bit micromanaging,” Aguillard said. “But it all adds up and it all, I mean, at this rate it’s not, you know, cents on the dollar. Is it dollars that, you know, turning off the light is gonna affect?”

The power company doesn’t foresee a change in the prices over the next months. The commission has requested that the company file updates more frequently, and advises residents to keep monitoring the commission’s website.

Some residents still don’t think that will lead to much. Marcus Tanner says the latest complaint he’s filed with the commission is his fourth.

“We have a history. Back in 2018, I had to leave here because they pretty much ran me out of my house,” Tanner said. “And every winter since I’ve been here, like 13 years now, people have these insane high bills. And it’s, like, random people.”

This month, Tanner’s bill went up from around $400 to $4,000.

“Went up 10 times,” Tanner said. “And the first thing [an Aniak Light & Power representative] said is, ‘Well, it’s going to be more expensive next month.’”

Tanner is hoping something will change before he has to leave Aniak.

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