The Promise of Renewables in Alaska

Alaskan stakeholders at a forum on renewable energy held by US Energy Secretary Salazar. (Photo: US Department of Interior)
While global investors worry about the future of Arctic oil drilling, northern citizens worry about keeping the lights on. Arctic residents pay on average twice as much as their southern counterparts for energy.

While global investors worry about the future of Arctic oil drilling, northern citizens worry about keeping the lights on. Arctic residents pay on average twice as much as their southern counterparts for heating, electricity, and transport fuel. A new program launched at Arctic Science Summit Week, the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy, holds the promise to bring affordable, reliable renewable energy to the circumpolar north.

Today, the phrase “Arctic energy” has become synonymous with snowy oil rigs, icy ocean exploration, and Greenpeace activists. Reflecting how much of the world views the circumpolar region more generally, Arctic energy is written as an extractive narrative. From Shell’s exploratory drilling last summer to the recent launch of Norway’s Goliat oil platform in the Barents Sea, the Arctic is frequently framed and valued by how it can help those living below the 66th parallel.

But there is another story to Arctic energy.

For those living in the Arctic, petroleum fuel isn’t about global commodity markets or climate change; it’s about survival. In the American Arctic, because of scarce transportation infrastructure and immense distances between communities, Alaskans pay nearly double the national average for energy. In extreme cases, the high costs of shipping or flying in diesel fuel have created energy migrants - American citizens who are forced to leave their ancestral homes because they can no longer afford electricity and heating expenses.

Since the 1980s, Alaska has been gradually addressing the issue of high cost fuel through microgrid pilot programs. Alaskan “islandized” microgrids are local power systems that operate on their own, with no connection to a larger transmission network. Microgrids increase reliable access to energy, reduce costs to consumers, and are better equipped to adapt to the known and unknown needs of the Arctic’s future.

Today, there are more than 200 microgrid projects across the state – a number that is not only growing, but also becoming greener thanks to the catalyst of the US Arctic Council Chairmanship.

Transitioning to Renewables: An Obama Legacy

Since taking on the Arctic Council Chairmanship last April, the Obama administration has made the development of smart, renewable micorgrid technology and implementation a priority. As part of President Obama’s visit to Alaska last summer, he visited the Arctic town of Kotzebue to talk about the promise of renewables in Alaska. “We are the number-one producer of oil and gas. But we’re transitioning away from energy that creates the carbon that’s warming the planet and threatening our health and our environment, and we’re going all in on clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar. And Alaska has the natural resources to be a global leader in this effort,” the president said.

While there, President Obama convened a meeting with Alaskan Governor Walker, the Denali Commission, the Alaska Energy Authority, and the Renewable Energy Alaska Project to launch the Clean Energy Solutions for Remote Communities (CESRC). The goal of CESRC is to expand investment in climate solutions by identifying technical, financial, and logistical challenges and opportunities in clean energy innovation.

President Obama’s commitments to clean energy in the North last summer have been followed by a number of follow-up financial and technical assistance programs. The most recent of these came in February, when Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz traveled to Alaskan remote village of Oscarville and announced another seven million dollars for the tribal energy program for technical assistance and training for Native Alaskan and American Indian communities. Recipients of funds will be chosen through a competitive process and receive five weeks of intensive training with the Department of Energy, giving villages the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement successful strategic energy solutions. The end goal of this program is to create a national network of regional, tribal energy experts who are able to provide technical energy assistance and information resources when an issue with the micorgrid technology arises.

A Regional Hub of Renewable Expertise

Alaska is not alone in its investments in both technical and human capital to support affordable access to clean energy for Arctic communities. Last week at the Arctic Science Summit Week in Fairbanks, Ambassador and Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials David Balton noted that “The Council needs to consider how it can continue to evolve to meet the new challenges of the Arctic, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement on climate change. We took some steps in that direction this week.” One such step was the promotion of “community-based Arctic leadership on renewable energy microgrids” through the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy (ARENA) program.

The ARENA program seeks to establish professional, knowledge-sharing networks related to microgrids and integration of renewable energy resources for remote Arctic communities. It has been endorsed by the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group, with a 2016 pilot program being led by the United States, Canada, Finland, Iceland, and Gwich-in Council International that includes a webinar school in April and May of this year followed by an on-site Alaska program in August. By integrating web-based seminars, classroom learning, field experience, and best practice sharing, participants will bring back to their home countries knowledge, skills, tools, and a network of collaborators that will facilitate integrating clean energy technologies into their communities.

A Group Effort

Energy security for remote communities cannot be analyzed, or solved, in isolation,. It must be evaluated holistically with issues from varied sectors at different scales. At the Arctic Institute’s event On Monday March 21, 100 Days In: COP21 and the Arctic’s Future, US Senior Arctic Official Julia Gourley emphasized that “all stakeholders need to be at the table” for Arctic renewable energy project to be successful. Programs like the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy launched last week do just that. It builds a multinational, multidisciplinary team of energy experts to ensure that policies and technological innovation augment the benefits of one another.

The debate over Arctic energy in the 21st Century provides much more than the chance to question offshore drilling and lament uncertain oil futures. It is an opportunity to support, to innovative, and to invigorate renewable energy grids across Alaska that provide affordable, reliable, and green power to America’s northernmost citizens.