BETHEL – A hefty contingent of six U.S. senators, the U.S. energy secretary, Gov. Bill Walker and others traveled Monday in a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles on the frozen Kuskokwim River to the village of Oscarville, population 50. They got an up-close look at a community with big needs and solutions in the works.
The field trip in Southwestern Alaska came on a day capped by a Bethel field hearing on energy, an issue woven into almost every aspect of life, from the fuel that powers skiffs in the summer to the heated cables that prevent water pipes from freezing – in the communities that have modern water systems.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the field hearing to examine energy innovation in high-cost areas of the country, especially Alaska.
The senators heard about energy efficient housing and a new project to build wooden trusses locally, saving on transportation. They were told about the promise of ideas just coming into their own, such as microgrids, local energy grids that in Alaska are islands of energy production, with nearby villages sharing one power plant. And they heard support for renewables such as solar and wind energy, plus simple, longstanding programs such as home weatherization.
Alaskans pay nearly double the national average on energy costs, Jack Hebert, chief executive of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, told the senators. He urged creation of a national Arctic energy lab in Alaska. In Fairbanks, his center now is running entirely off alternative energy -- even when it's minus 20, he said.
The senators and their aides flew Monday morning in an Alaska Air National Guard HC-130 from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Bethel. The group included Republican Sens. Murkowski, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Steve Daines of Montana and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, along with Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell – the committee's ranking Democrat -- and Angus King, an independent from Maine.
Also on the trip: U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist with wild white hair, whose office released a new study showing the promise of solar energy in Alaska and announced a new $7 million tribal energy program.
The logistics were complex with so many high-level officials in such a remote place. A Blackhawk helicopter, with a full crew of medics, was on standby in case anyone became ill on the trip to Oscarville. A doctor from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda was on hand.
Murkowski had wanted to take the senators to Oscarville by snowmachine but was warned off for lack of snow. But the group, most of whom hadn't been to Bethel before and some of whom were first-timers to the state, still saw a bit of real Alaska, from the tiny weathered houses and wooden boardwalks to residents checking subsistence fishing nets under the ice as trucks rumbled down the Kuskokwim super highway.
"That was an Alaskan motorcade there," Daines said after arriving in Oscarville. "I'm a Montanan so I'm used to remote places. But I can say I've never driven on a river."
In Oscarville, which doesn't have running water except at the school, Mike Hoffman, executive vice president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, pointed out a steam house.
"Sweat your way clean," Murkowski told her colleagues.
Oscarville already is the focus of a multiagency group trying to help residents improve life there but never before have so many people -- and so many important people -- come to the village at once. Neither Murkowski nor Walker had been there before. Residents said they were both thrilled and overwhelmed.
"The population just doubled," Myron Naneng, president of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, joked.
Trevor Mesak -- 15, one of 16 students at Oscarville's small school -- performed Yup'ik dances with other students for the visitors, then shot hoops with Walker and state Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel.
The high-level visitors left a big impression.
"We matter, a lot," he said.
At the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. Elders Home in Bethel, the group ate lunch catered by local Tiffany Tony that included mashed potatoes grown by Bethel's Tim Meyers, Kuskokwim silver salmon caught by the local boys' group home and braised rabbit. The meat was flown in from Anchorage.
At a Crowley gas station in the hub community, unleaded was selling for $5.64 a gallon -- a bit cheaper than in Oscarville. Senators heard repeatedly how fuel prices are locked in for the season and won't change until new fuel arrives on barges in spring.
The U.S. Department of Energy has had only a lone employee in Alaska. Moniz, on his fifth trip to Alaska but his first to Bethel, said in an interview that he is adding three staff members to the state.
Walker told the senators that Alaska is both the nation's most energy-rich state and the one with the highest energy costs. He talked about the state's long-hoped-for natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Cook Inlet and also made another push for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.
One of the visiting senators, West Virginia's Capito, asked Walker how the natural gas would get to remote communities.
"I didn't realize, since it's my first visit here, how far apart everything is, no roads, no existing infrastructure," Capito said.
Walker said liquefied natural gas could be barged on rivers or driven on trucks.
Hoffman, of the Association of Village Council Presidents, highlighted another big project for the region -- creating a new transportation corridor of some type between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. If that happens, LNG could be barged down the Yukon River and eventually end up in Kuskokwim River villages, he said.
Southwestern Alaska includes the poorest communities in the United States, but people have a rich culture of living off the land and the water, of speaking their Native language, the senators were told.
Ralph Anderson, president of Bristol Bay Native Association, traveled from Dillingham for the hearing. He said he knew some might question why people live in such a rough place.
"It's really simple," he said. "This is home."