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Northwest Arctic stakeholders gather to discuss local energy solutions

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
The Northwest Arctic's Regional Energy Plan calls for a 75 percent of energy to come from "regionally-available energy sources" by 2030.
NASA's "Earth at Night" video

One of hardest aspects of living in the Northwest Arctic is the cost of living. And more specifically, the astronomical cost of heating fuel and gasoline.

The Regional Energy Steering Committee met in Kotzebue on Friday to discuss solutions in the works and future projects, including utilizing more wind, solar and biomass energy, as well as potential alternatives to expensive fuel transportation into the villages. The draft version of the Regional Energy Plan was released for 2013-2018 and offers a long list of current and future projects. The plan states a goal for the region of being 75 percent reliant on regionally-available energy sources by the year 2030, with a 25 percent decrease of imported fossil fuels by 2015.

The steering committee is made up of stakeholders in Northwest Arctic energy, including fuel providers, representatives from various electric companies, and representatives from the villages in the region. The group was formed with financial support from NANA Regional Corporation around 2008 when the price of crude oil spiked. Since then, the group has been studying and implementing cost-cutting solutions with the goal of making life for the residents of the region more sustainable.

The borough continues to get money from the Alaska Energy Authority to maintain the committee.

“We’re all challenged by the same thing,” said Fred Smith, the borough’s director of economic development, of rising fuel costs.

And by collaborating with the communities on a myriad of projects and possible solutions, there is relief in sight.

The list of on-going and “identified” projects is a long one, but Smith spoke optimistically about the changes.

Sharing energy resources between communities is at the top of the list. A portion of the wind energy collected from the turbines in Kotzebue could potentially be used to help offset the higher costs in some of the villages, he said.

And for those communities with suitable conditions, using smaller wind farms to help absorb the burden of expensive diesel generators in communities like Deering, Buckland and Noorvik. Construction of this $10.8 million project is slated to begin the summer with the three villages expected to generate 20 percent of their energy needs as a result.

Solar arrays are already up and running in Shungnak, Ambler, Noorvik and Noatak with the rest of the villages slated to be connected to the sun within the next year.

The solar panels are connected to the water and sewer buildings to reduce the cost of operating those public facilities. Smith noted that while the Midnight Sun provides a lot of juice in the summer, most of the biggest returns are collected in March, April and May when the sun is reflecting off the snow.

These and the dozens of other potential money-saving projects take a lot of investment to get started. Finding that capital investment is always a challenge, as is the geographical makeup of the region, Smith said.

Partnering up with Teck-Alaska, the company responsible for bringing up bulk fuel to supply the Red Dog Mine, is another possible method to lower landed and retail fuel costs, Smith said.

“Teck (already) brings in 19 million gallons a year of fuel,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense for us to be part of an annual cooperative.”

In the future, the Cape Blossom Road and the proposed deep-water port would also help cut fuel costs by alleviating some of the expense associated with handling and transferring from barge to barge.

“We could theoretically bring in a big barge ... placing less demand on marine vessels,” Smith said. “There is so much equipment involved with just moving fuel into Kotzebue and then moving it into the communities.”

Working closely with the villages in the region also means identifying each community’s individual energy needs and assets.

For example, if the villages on the Upper Kobuk don’t produce sufficient wind, it might make more sense for the residents to power in part with biomass. And using large, dual-burner boilers to heat homes and water is one possible solution.

“What we’ve done is broken up the regional energy plan by community and sub-region so we can identify the opportunities by region and community.”

Sending larger loads of fuel overland to, and storing it in, Noatak instead of flying in smaller batches is on the list of potential money-saving options. And if it’s successful, it might be an option for other villages as well.

“Fuel is not cheap, and I think the retail price is a good reflection of that,” Smith said. “We need to lower the costs sooner rather than later.”

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.