After electricity-rate shock, Aniak seeks changes from state utility regulators

the Kuskokwim River
Gillnet fishing on the Kuskokwim River near Aniak. (Courtesy Dave Cannon)

This June, without warning, power bills in the Kuskokwim River community of Aniak quadrupled in cost, resulting in some of the highest electricity prices in the world. The electric bills often exceeded $1,000 a month per household.

Aniak Light & Power Company, the village’s electrical utility, blamed fuel price increases, but regulators concluded that they had also been underestimating fuel costs for some time. Over 30 community members attended a Regulatory Commission of Alaska meeting to speak about the damaging impact of the extreme and unexpected rate increases, and local organizations began coordinating a response.

After that, the commission decided to substantially lower the village’s monthly rate and rebill customers at those rates. The commission instituted a monthly fee over the next two years to pay off the electric company’s debt of nearly half a million dollars. The commission also said that customers could not be disconnected for not paying their bills.

Still, what happened was a wake-up call for the community. Now the tribe has passed a resolution in a bid to change the RCA so that this can’t happen again.

At the Association of Village Council Presidents annual convention this month, the Aniak Traditional Council got unanimous approval on a resolution that calls on the state of Alaska to investigate and change the commission, because of its decision to approve exorbitant electricity rates in Aniak without prior notice.

AVCP, which represents 56 Native villages in Western Alaska, will sponsor the resolution at the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in October.

Wayne Morgan, the Aniak Traditional Council’s American Rescue Plan Act coordinator, said that the community believes the decision by the commission to approve the extremely high rates was unacceptable.

“No public notice, no protocol in how they review increases, especially something like this: 400%,” Morgan said. “And also extending it out two years and still penalizing Aniak. I mean, not penalizing Aniak, but putting it on consumers where we still have to pay that half a million dollars. That is on us to pay; we are paying it now. It’s just extended out two years, which we say is not right. We need to relook at this. And to prevent this from not happening to other communities throughout the state.”

After Aniak residents received the high bills, local organizations formed a working group to investigate both alleviating the immediate financial burden and ensuring that this wouldn’t happen again. Its members include representatives from the tribe, the local village corporation, the Calista Corp., nonprofits and staffers sent by state legislators Rep. Bryce Edgmon and Sen. Lyman Hoffman,

The Aniak Traditional Council sent a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office requesting immediate assistance.

“You know, saying this is outrageous, we need some kind of help with this,” Morgan said. “Only your office can do something quick.”

The governor responded almost a month later, saying that reducing the cost of energy, especially in rural areas, is one of his top priorities. He also said that the RCA worked closely with Aniak Light & Power to address the immediate issue quickly.

Village leaders considered pursuing litigation, but determined it could be costly and would drag on. They decided to go with the resolution for now, asking for the commission to look into Aniak Light & Power’s practices, and for the state to investigate the RCA’s practices, commissioners and how they carry out their functions.

The resolution points out that the 400% increase in prices was of significant public interest, which requires public notice under the regulatory commissions statutes, but no public notice was issued. They request that the commission be required to give notice of changes to utility prices that would result in an increase of 10% or more.

The council is also requesting that the state look into reorganizing or reevaluating how the commission operates, specifically requesting that Native and rural representation be added. Morgan added that it’s not clear that the current commission members are even properly qualified under the body’s present standards.

RCA spokesperson Steven Jones said that the commission is aware of the resolution and reviewing it. He also said that the governor appoints the five commissioners and is responsible for standard procedure.

For now, the community is hoping that the resolution will be approved at the AFN convention in Anchorage, and will bring fundamental changes to the process of pricing for electricity.

“What happened here in Aniak is gross negligence,” Morgan said. “Focus on that, but use that to make it a statewide issue saying, ‘You know, this can happen to any other community within Alaska.’”

The Aniak Traditional Council is also working on another resolution, and the working group continues to meet bi-weekly to discuss Aniak’s electricity situation.

Previous articleAlaska Permanent Fund leaders discuss whether to seek exemption from open-government law
Next articleHouse GOP hardliners block spending stopgap with shutdown looming