Opinions

OPINION: Research and education help renewable energy efforts for rural Alaska

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How can we be sure that renewable energy realizes the benefits it promises to rural Arctic communities, especially as they face unprecedented and rapid environmental changes? One way is to take a holistic approach to renewable energy planning and be sure that it not only meets energy needs but also considers broader community needs such as food and water security. Our University of Alaska team is nearing completion of a five-year National Science Foundation project designed to help community planners do just that.

As we continually look for better ways to serve Alaska and Alaskans, we have focused on actively involving communities and making our research results accessible to a larger audience. We are excited to share news about one of our products, an online non-credit MOOC (massive open online course) offered through the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ edX partnership, AlaskaX, and entitled Renewable Energy for Arctic Food and Water Security.

Preparing an online course that incorporated our research findings into an easy-to-understand format was a big challenge for our team but one that we felt was core to our mission as America’s Arctic university. The end product includes overviews of life in rural Alaska, firsthand video footage from communities, tutorials on renewable energy resources in Alaska and interactive case studies.

The course is intended not just for traditional students (college and upper high school) but also decision-makers, community members, energy professionals and interested citizens inside and outside Alaska. The course is self-paced and can be audited for free or taken for a small fee to receive access to instructors and a verified certificate. There are a number of other excellent AlaskaX offerings, including one on microgrid energy fundamentals, and more are in the works. We encourage you to check them out.

We’re proud to be part of an institution that is a leader in Arctic education, research and service — even under the most difficult circumstances. Despite its immense challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted virtual educational opportunities for both our team and the university to reach an even broader audience. MOOCs are available for anyone and provide an affordable and flexible way to learn new skills, advance careers and deliver quality educational experiences at scale. They have dramatically changed the way the world learns.

Rural communities in Alaska and across the Arctic find themselves in a state of unprecedented rapid change, and there is a critical need to integrate more sustainable and secure energy sources into them. As a result, rural Arctic communities are facing an increasing number of investment and policy decisions relevant to the secure provision of food, energy and water. It is becoming more important than ever to support strong community-based decision-making practices, for both the communities themselves and as examples to others around the world.

We know we haven’t solved everything with this effort, but we hope we’ve planted the seeds to continue learning about what more needs to be done and what can be done better for our communities. Through this project, we’ve focused not only on understanding food, energy and water connections but also on building relationships and learning what works and doesn’t work for communities.

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One thing we’ve learned is that the more voices we have at the table, and the more we listen and share ideas, the better off we are. As researchers and educators, we’re excited to take this step but also recognize that it’s only one step. We hope you’ll consider joining us in this continual process of learning and conversation. Please visit https://www.edx.org/school/alaskax to learn more.

Erin Whitney, of Anchorage, is an associate research professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Multiple authors contributed, including and independent consultant and researchers from UAF, University of Alaska Anchorage and Stanford University.

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