In Northwest Arctic, federal grant will bring heat pumps to homes, solar energy to villages

Under a newly announced federal grant, every household in the Northwest Arctic Borough would receive a heat pump to alleviate the cost of energy, and every village in the region would have a solar energy system — and an additional source of revenue.

In late February, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded rural and remote communities across the country funds to lower energy costs and support the deployment of clean energy. The Northwest Arctic Borough is receiving around $55 million, with grants funded by the 2021 federal infrastructure law. Counting all matches and contributions from regional partners, the total amount of funding for the four-year clean energy project is about $68.5 million, according to the statement from NANA Corp.

The money will be used for all 11 villages in the Northwest Arctic region where the fuel prices are some of the highest in the nation.

[Over 20 Alaska villages on tap for $125M in federal funds for solar and hydroelectric projects]

“I think it’s a great thing for the region,” said Chad Nordlum, energy project manager at the Native Village of Kotzebue. “The heat pumps are exciting to get people off of diesel fuel and kind of move towards more electrification of heat. I think it’s really exciting. And you kind of couple that with the solar in the villages — that can help make a big difference.”

Heat pumps for every household

For residents, the funding will bring new devices to regulate the temperature inside their homes: heat pumps.

A heat pump is like a reversible air conditioner that can cool the house in the summer and warm it up in winter, said borough energy manager Ingemar Mathiasson.


A “heat pump can take heat from one side and move it into the other one,” he said. “When you run it as a cooling device, as an air conditioner, then you steal the heat from inside the house and push it on the outside. ... When you run it in reverse, you’re cooling down the outside of the house and putting the heat on the inside.”

The borough plans to distribute 850 heat pumps to the households in all the villages, except for Kotzebue, Mathiasson said. The installation will be spread over three years, with more than 200 this year, Mathiasson said.

The devices are run on electricity, and in combination with solar and batteries, they can help offset the use of more diesel fuel, Mathiasson said.

Another benefit of heat pumps is their ability to filter air and help improve residents’ indoor air quality, “especially if they’re running woodstoves as their alternate,” Nordlum said.

Nordlum previously told Arctic Sounder that heat pumps sometimes have temperature limitations for operation and struggle to provide heat on the coldest days.

This can be the case for some heat pumps, Mathiasson said. For example, residents in Ambler have been using solar-powered heat pumps that provide them with an extra heat source and capacity to make the air cooler and cleaner in the summer but can only work down to about zero degrees.

However, for this new project, the borough will be using cold-weather pumps that can function at temperatures as low as 20 below, Mathiasson said.

“Lower than that, the regular furnace or Toyostove have to take over,” Mathiasson said.

Still, energy experts expect the heat pumps to make a difference in the region, Nordlum said.

“The price of fuel in the villages is so high. I think it’ll help it make it more sustainable for people to live there,” Nordlum said. “I think for Alaska, it’s definitely gonna be the first kind of big deployment of heat pumps that I know of.”

Solar in every village

The grant will also fund solar arrays and battery systems in the Northwest Arctic.

Six villages — Kivalina, Noorvik, Selawik, Ambler, Kobuk and Kiana —will receive brand-new 4-megawatt solar panels and over 7 megawatt-hours of battery storage systems. The remaining five villages that already have solar — Buckland, Deering, Kotzebue, Noatak and Shungnak — will improve their existing systems.

In the majority of the villages, the solar energy systems will be owned by regional tribes.

The model follows the Shungnak-Kobuk example, where the Shungnak and Kobuk tribal governments own the solar farm and sell the power to the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative. The power is then used by about 450 residents of both villages. The system is bringing the villages approximately $100,000 a year after expenses are accounted for, Mathiasson said.

[From 2022: Large solar array means 2 Northwest Alaska villages can turn off diesel power for hours a day]

Similarly, the new or updated solar arrays in the rest of the villages will be owned by the local tribal governments, allowing them to sell power back to utility companies and making them independent power producers.

“This grant will maximize our ability to utilize solar power for electricity in all our 11 communities and will likely make us stand out as the first region in Alaska implementing Independent Power Producer operations region-wide,” Mathiasson said. “This model may very possibly be the vision for the rest of Alaska also going forward.”


In total, the Northwest Arctic villages are expected to receive close to $1 million in annual revenue, Mathiasson said.

For each village, the revenue is “going to vary a little from community to community,” Mathiasson said. “It will depend a little bit on the cost of fuel and what their electricity is selling for, and it varies several times during the year.”

The first villages to get new solar arrays will be Selawik and Ambler, followed by Noatak and Kiana, Mathiasson said.

Overall, with the new funding, the clean energy project can potentially offset the use of 350,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually and save regional residents $2 million in electricity and heating costs, according to NANA.

In some Northwest Arctic villages, diesel fuel can cost as much as $18 per gallon, according to NANA, and most villages are powered by diesel generators.

In 2022, NANA conducted a regional home heating survey, said Albie Dallemolle, vice president of economic development and sustainability at the corporation: The results showed that seven out of 10 households had experienced home heating issues in the six months before the survey was conducted, Dallemolle said. Nearly half of households reported that heating issues affected their home water and sewer systems, she said. Additionally, about 46% of households said they could not afford heating fuel or electricity.

NANA Chief Executive Officer and President John Lincoln said in a statement: “The cost of energy in our region creates a burden on families and suppresses economic development. By exploring other energy sources with our regional partners, we are building a stronger tomorrow with more opportunities for our shareholders.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.