The thought of energy systems in rural Alaska have many thinking outside the box for solutions. History of energy in rural communities in northern regions of the state shows they used one animal for heat, light and food; the seal. These communities treasured their seal oil lamps, or naniq, as the Inuit called them, which were efficient and so important that it was treated like part of the household. The hunter would not only hunt to feed his family, but to feed his seal oil lamp.
So, how is it that cultures with such innovation and ingenuity are now paying the highest cost of energy in the United States? Through mere process. With rigid Western energy systems, nature appears to have the upper hand. Coupled with the continued high cost of upgrading or installing new systems, this problem only exacerbates. Yet, energy is the heart of every rural community. Without energy infrastructure, none of the billions of dollars of infrastructure in place for heat, electricity, or water and sewer can operate.
This brings us to energy planning in a state where most communities are off the road systems, climates are in constant change and temperature variants range from -70F to +100F. How do we look into the future of energy in a state that relies on energy fuel extraction for its budget? This topic has been tackled many times, in many different ways.
My intersection with rural energy happened to bring light to a long-lived struggle to understand why implementation and change was not happening. A different approach was needed to truly understand the big picture. But, how would we be any different than previous attempts?
From 2009 through 2017, Alaska Energy Authority assisted Alaska’s regions with developing regional energy plans. Beginning with the Railbelt Integrated Resource Plan in 2009 and the Southeast Integrated Resource Plan in 2011. Over the next few years, AEA continued into rural Alaska. Working with consultants and paving new methods to truly capture the energy scene, AEA completed eight additional plans and the North Slope Borough completed their plan with private funding. In 2012, a Commonwealth North publication titled Energy For A Sustainable Alaska: The Rural Conundrum stated “affordable energy remains unavailable in virtually all of rural Alaska and as a result Alaska’s rural and indigenous communities are at severe risk.” Regional Energy Planning in Alaska was not easy for those who saw this as a potential game-changer. Logistics and weather challenges ate budgets. Again, Mother Nature was winning. Adaptation became a piece of the solution.
These regional plans prepared a “snap shot” in time of energy production costs, existing infrastructure, end-use cost (with and without the State Power Cost Equalization subsidy), and regional priorities. This effort began to unravel the importance of energy to Alaskan communities. Rural Alaskan lifestyles and energy use had to be woven into the bigger picture. Subsistence and traditions now used fuel energy vs seal energy. This was becoming a new, evolved way to look at two worlds through one lense. Working in collaboration with other energy initiatives, education and outreach became the priority. Alaskans simply did not understand the complexities of energy systems, renewable integration, or how impacts from climate change could destroy systems in place faster than anyone expected. This was the reality of the time.
Today success stories across the state have proven that effective energy planning is possible and that the innovation and ingenuity of rural Alaskans could harness the sun and wind, just as they had harnessed the use of seal oil in a different time.