Rural Alaska's arctic development depends on sure, affordable energy

Energy underpins the health, economic vitality and overall sustainability of communities, and has been identified as a focus area and priority during the U.S. leadership of the Arctic Council. As professionals working in the energy industry, we applaud this emphasis on energy for remote communities and look forward to actions and projects that will emerge from the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic this month.

As Alaskans, the two of us share a vision of an Alaska with a diversified and robust economic base founded on environmentally prudent development, providing high quality jobs not just in urban centers, but in all regions of the state. As a mother and a grandmother, we aspire to an Alaska that will have safe, resilient communities with robust local economies and education, training and employment opportunities for our children -- Alaska's future leaders.

We believe access to affordable, reliable energy underpins our aspirations for Alaska, and its limited availability has been a major factor hampering economic development in the state. Electricity is only one part of the equation -- heat and transportation often represent an even larger financial burden for many rural Alaskans. As guidelines for any projects or programs developed, we propose each and every action:

1) Recognize and build from Alaska's strengths. Over the past few decades, the Arctic has quietly become a global leader in the development and operation of self-sufficient microgrids, effectively integrating locally available renewable energy resources with diesel-fueled generators. Approximately half of the population across the Arctic, as well as many place-specific, energy-intensive industries (e.g., mineral and oil extraction, fish processing) are powered by microgrids. Alaska is considered a global leader in this field, with far more practical expertise than any combination of federal or local organizations Outside. Any pilot or demonstration projects developed under the U.S. chairmanship should take advantage of this hard-won, Arctic-germane Alaskan expertise.

2) Align new projects with existing programs. Alaska has existing state programs that have contributed to the state having the highest per capita investment in renewable energy technology of any state. Any initiative undertaken by the U.S. State Department should be careful not to undermine these programs, but rather partner with existing state programs around shared goals with rapid implementation potential. We applaud a recent U.S. Energy Department commitment to contribute $250,000 to a special round of the Alaska Emerging Energy Technology Fund. Ideally, several million more dollars are needed to foster innovation in this field and to foster product development and deployment.

3) Invest in research and development. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has often made the case that, with our high energy costs, Alaska can be a testing ground and early market for U.S. innovation in the energy sector. We agree, with the exhortation that technology to be deployed in rural Alaska be robust and fully functional. Recently, the U.S. Economic Development Association awarded a $500,000 matching grant to a University of Alaska team to establish the Alaska Center for Microgrid Technologies Commercialization. This center is intended to work with Alaskan and U.S. small businesses to develop, and transition, the next generation of energy technology that can be adopted for use in Alaska and other regions served by microgrids. Federal investments like this can make a significant, long-term difference in Alaska's ability to be self-sufficient, and continue to position Alaska as a leader in what is expected to become a $20 billion global industry.

4) Understand that electricity is only a part of the energy equation. Heat and transportation costs often represent an even larger cost burden for many rural Alaskans. Energy efficiency, weatherization, and development of housing stock appropriate for the Arctic are also high priorities to help improve living conditions and reduce the cost of living and doing business in the Arctic.

5) Empower local communities to take action. An energy efficiency competition has been suggested that could empower communities to come up with innovative ideas for reducing their energy use in ways that could be transferable to other places in the Arctic. Engaging Alaska stakeholders in the design of such a competition could help ensure successful implementation. This is especially important since provision will have to be made for developing reliable data on existing energy consumption – especially for heat and transportation.

6) Invest in training. Human capacity is always a challenge when it comes to designing, operating, and maintaining systems, especially in remote, rural areas. The University of Alaska is well positioned to lead development of education needed for that workforce across the Arctic. Energy-focused programs under development, modeled on Iceland's United Nations University geothermal energy training program, could demonstrate U.S. leadership by engaging students and workers from across the Arctic.

7) Keep an eye to the future. Connect communities to share replicated infrastructure. Scarce human resources are optimized when operating fewer systems. Microgrids are more efficient when serving multiple communities. An Alaska grid will enable stranded renewable energy resources to be brought to distant users, will incentivize clean energy jobs and will support industry that today simply ships natural resources to other economies for processing.

Alaska has been a leader in developing innovative solutions to the challenging and complex energy needs of rural communities. We look forward to continuing to work with Alaskans and other stakeholders to develop and implement energy approaches to meet the needs of the unique communities of our state and the rest of the world.

Meera Kohler has been a utility CEO for 25 years, with the last 15 at Alaska Village Electric Cooperative. AVEC serves 56 rural communities, many with hybrid wind diesel systems, and has been on the cutting edge of innovative microgrid development in Alaska.

Gwen Holdmann is director of the UAF Alaska Center for Energy and Power, an applied energy research program with 22 staff and more than 30 affiliated faculty focusing on community-scale fossil and renewable/alternative energy technologies.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com