Q & A with Shareholder Employees

A Conversation with Sonny Adams, Director of Alternative Energy, NANA Regional Corporation

This is part of a series of interviews with NANA’s shareholder-employees.

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Sonny Adams is a shareholder originally from Kotzebue. As NANA Regional Corporation’s director of energy, he works mostly on developing renewable energy resources in the NANA region. Photo by Kally Greene-Gudmundson.

 

What is your Iñupiaq name?

Kuukpuk. Marion Sours was my mother’s dad. I have his name. 

Where are you from?

I was born in Fairbanks and grew up in Kotzebue. My parents are Aurora (Sours) Madsen and the late Al Adams. I’m the oldest (of his six kids) and I was named after him—Albert Adams, Jr. (Senator Al Adams served 20 years as a state legislator.)

What do people ask when they find out you’re from Kotzebue?

They usually ask if I’m related to Sen. Adams. The last person to ask me that was the dental assistant at ANMC (the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage). She was from Kwethluk (a village near Bethel) and she said she liked my dad.

What is your first memory of NANA?

Early one summer, dad took us out to Reilly Wreck (south of Kotzebue, the site where a steamship wrecked). We were part of a reindeer roundup. (NANA used to own a herd of reindeer. The meat was sold locally and the antlers were sold for medicinal purposes to South Koreans.)

I remember a sense of camaraderie, all of us working together. It felt very comfortable, like we were all a big family.

What was your first job?

I had a few jobs. I was a dishwasher at the old Nullaġvik Hotel. I stocked groceries at Rotman Stores (in Kotzebue). My dad and I fished commercially. Since dad had to travel, I was the designated captain who stayed with the boat. I was 13. He paid me 25 cents a fish. When I was 16, I was able to buy my first truck with fishing money. When I was 22, I started working at Red Dog (Mine).

What was your experience prior to coming to NANA?

I worked at Red Dog (Mine) for 18 years. In 1988, I was hired by Teck to help start up the mill. I wrote operator training manuals for use in the mill (the ore processing facility).

Who first encouraged you to work for NANA?

When I was working at the mill (at Red Dog Mine), Charlie Curtis asked me, “What are your future plans?” (Charlie was once a NANA president and subsequently a board member.) I told him I’d be interested in working for NANA one day. I interviewed with a big team of people: Marie Greene, Walter Sampson, and other managers from NANA. (Marie and Walter are now retired. Marie was NANA president and Walter was the vice president of NANA lands.)

In 2007. I was hired by NANA as a project manager to help out with technical oversight of the Red Dog Mine.

What is your current job?

I’m the director of alternative energy (for NANA Regional Corporation). I work mostly on developing renewable energy resources in the NANA region.

In 2008, NANA received energy grants from the DOE (Department of Energy). The grants were specifically focused on our region—to explore solar, wind, geothermal, hydrothermal and hydropower technologies.

Why is developing renewable energy such a priority?

Our region has the highest energy costs in the nation. A shareholder showed me her electric bill: $614 for one month. Our board of directors gave us the directive to lower energy prices in the region. We have the support of the villages, as long as subsistence lifestyle and traditional activities are not impacted. We’re executing a regional energy plan.

The plan is to reduce diesel consumption in the region by integrating renewable energy, and we’re making progress. The goal is to combine wind and solar energy with energy storage batteries to reduce the amount of diesel fuel needed to operate power generators. We’re starting in Deering, Buckland and Kotzebue, because they have the powerhouse upgrades needed to integrate renewable energy.

Why is fuel so expensive in the NANA region?

There’s no road system into the region (or between the villages). Shipping costs are higher. Fuel has been barged in and bulk prices are locked in when the order is placed. Flying in fuel is even more expensive. It adds a markup of $2.00 a gallon. So, heating fuel in the villages can range from $4.40 to $9.50 per gallon, depending on where the village is located and how the fuel is delivered.

Our rivers (the Noatak and Upper Kobuk) are getting too shallow to support the fuel barge delivery. We’re not getting the snowfall we used to get. When I was a kid, we had snowdrifts as high as our roofs. We don’t see that anymore.

What do you like best about your job?

Something that Dad instilled in us was to resolve to help people. I think his legacy is the (infrastructure) improvements in the NANA region. Lowering energy costs in the region is my mission. Fuel is probably the number one household expense. With such high costs, you can’t promote economic development. We have to get and keep costs down.

Has renewable energy become a viable option in the NANA region?

Wind energy in the Arctic was not thought of as a viable option back in the 1980s. People thought the extreme environment was too harsh (for the turbine equipment). Now, KEA (Kotzebue Electric Association) has the largest wind farm in Alaska. It stands out as one of the renewable success stories in rural Alaska. Kotzebue’s 19 wind turbines produce 20 to 25 percent of the power used by residents in one year, offsetting 250,000 gallons of diesel fuel. That’s an annual savings of $900,000.

As a result of KEA’s success, and the wind data collected by NANA and the DOE, the Northwest Arctic Borough was able to apply for funding from the Alaska Energy Authority to install wind turbines in Deering and Buckland (in 2015).

Where did you study or train?

I graduated from Kotzebue High School. Then, after working for years as a mill operator, I went to Montana Tech at the University of Montana in Butte. I earned a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical and materials engineering, with an emphasis on mineral processing.

I started out with a lot of practical (on-the-job) experience. Then I backed it up with a formal, technical education. Adding real experience to theory can be huge. On summer breaks, I was able to intern at Red Dog in the met lab (the metallurgical laboratory where ore samples are tested and evaluated).

Who has inspired you?

My parents. My dad set the bar real high for us kids. He encouraged us to get an education. Mom and Dad had us doing a lot of subsistence activities at a young age. We learned to work hard.

What’s the best memory you have of your parents?

Both of them coming down (to Montana) for my college graduation was huge.

What advice to you have for young shareholders?

Get your education early. It’s harder to study math, chemistry and physics when you’re 37. Work hard. Develop people skills. You can get anything you want, if you work hard enough. Also, learn to make healthy choices. If you start that early in life, it will yield rewards later.

What important lessons have you learned?

Have patience. Work hard. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Where do you hope to be in five years?

I’d like to be running one of our NANA-owned companies. Installing renewable energy in one (or all) of the eight remaining villages in the NANA region. One day all of the NANA region will be on renewable energy and off diesel fuel. I believe that can be done.

What do you want people to know about NANA?

NANA is working hard to lower costs in our region for our shareholders. Our efforts are respected by the state and federal government. The key to our success is collaboration. We’re working together with the Northwest Arctic Borough, KEA (Kotzebue Electric Association) and the DOE (U.S. Department of Energy).

What are you most grateful for?

My daughter, Adonna Jo. I love being a dad. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I didn’t love the changing diapers part, when she was a baby. I had to wear a bandana over my nose, like a bandit. I couldn’t handle the smell.

Now, she’s 15 going on 30. She’s a sophomore at Mt. Edgecumbe (the boarding school in Sitka), where my dad graduated from. She’s the student body president. She wants to go to Stanford and study engineering. My dad would be so proud of her, too. Especially since three of his six kids are engineers.

What is the best news you’ve heard lately?

My daughter’s getting straight A’s in school.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

I was 43 when I ran my first marathon. Since then, I’ve run 19 marathons. I’ve learned the right shoes are important. On that first marathon, I lost two toenails. This year, I ran three marathons. In September, I ran a marathon on Maui. It was hot, 85 to 90 degrees. My next run is in Las Vegas. Every chance I get, I love to travel.

What else do you want people to know about you?

Who’s the best fisherman, out of me and my brothers? That would be me. We set nets in Dillingham and go dipnetting on the Kenai. My daughter knows how to filet fish with an ulu. Yup, I’m proud.

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Sonny Adams was interviewed by Carol Richards, Director of Brand Communications for NANA Development Corporation.