Alumnus helps supply power to rural Alaskans

Brent Petrie (BA geography ’72) makes life better for people.

An example: When people in remote Alaskan villages flip on their lights, they may have Petrie to thank.

He’s one of the folks behind the scenes getting people electricity — sometimes for the very first time in their lives.

And it’s not always desk work. At times he’s worked side-by-side with local residents in a far-flung Alaskan village to restore power in the dark of winter, in temperatures that can dip to 20 below zero.

“A power interruption during the Alaskan winter is a life, health and safety issue,” Petrie says.

Indeed. With no roads to connect most villages in rural Alaska, keeping power on is a must. Petrie adds that during emergencies, local people pitch in and help out.

“These communities are out there by themselves,” he says.

The environment, and how to tap its power to make life better, is a topic that has captivated Petrie for most of his life.

He recalls growing up on the family farm in upstate New York, where his parents  practiced small-scale forestry.

“I came to appreciate the land,” he says. “I have many fond memories exploring the woods, ponds and streams for hours.”

He solidified that interest at DU when he took a course in water resource engineering.

“I learned about water rights administration, dam building,  irrigation and the politics of water,” Petrie says. “It was eye opening and captured my interest.”

He moved to Alaska in 1976 and joined the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, where he worked as a water and land resource manager. He later transferred to a state-owned power company and began powering villages via hydroelectricity. One of his projects replaced the need for 80 percent of the diesel fuel used in the power plant.

Today he’s part of a team modernizing diesel power plants, upgrading village fuel facilities and developing alternative energy sources — including wind turbines — for the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, which serves 53 rural villages.

In February, the U.S. Department of Energy recognized the effort with the Wind Cooperative of the Year award. And in April, Petrie was recognized as an Alaskan Wind-Diesel Pioneer at a technical conference.

Installing turbines in remote western Alaska is much easier said than done. Only one of the villages has a road leading to it; access to the rest comes by boat or plane.

“The logistics of constructing projects with limited access are tough and take a lot of planning,” he says.

But, he adds, “With the escalating cost of imported fuel, the time to use a locally available renewable resource is now.”

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