Alaska Natives Benefit from First-Ever Community Energy Development Workshop

Dec. 28, 2012

As Alaska Native villages prepared for winter and the intensified energy challenges the season will bring, NREL contributed to an Alaska Native Community Development workshop focused on solutions to those challenges.

Held in Anchorage, Alaska, on October 16 and 17, the workshop was co-hosted by DOE’s Office of Indian Energy (DOE-IE) and DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Tribal Energy Program. NREL technical experts Alex Dane and Ian Baring-Gould moderated panel discussions designed to help Alaska tribal leaders and staff understand the range of energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities that exist in their communities.

The workshop, which was intended to benefit Alaska Native entities on both a local and regional level, drew a broad spectrum of more than 100 participants throughout the state, from village councils to regional housing authorities and Native corporations and nonprofits.

In addition to providing in-depth information on potential renewable energy and energy efficiency technology solutions, the workshop featured case studies and panel discussions on specific projects that are under way in Alaska Native villages.

Workshop attendees heard from state and federal energy experts from NREL, DOE-IE, the Tribal Energy Program, the Alaska Energy Authority, the Denali Commission, NANA, and other agencies and organizations on topics ranging from village energy planning to grid integration to energy project financing. Through guided panel discussions, they also had the unique opportunity to learn and benefit from the direct experience of a few of the Alaska Native villages that were selected to participate in the Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) program. Through START, which is funded by DOE-IE and the Denali Commission in Alaska, NREL is providing those villages with direct technical assistance designed to move their energy projects from concept to deployment at an accelerated pace, while also building local capacity to maintain and manage the projects over the long term.

“START is focused on providing villages with a pathway to take the concept of an energy project all the way through the development process and installation,” said DOE-IE Deputy Director Pilar Thomas, who kicked off the workshop with an overview of how the strategic energy planning process developed is embedded in the community project development process. “Sometimes that can seem very complex and unapproachable, and the purpose of the workshop was to break it down so Alaska villages have a clear understanding of not only the project development cycle but also the various project financing opportunities, including private financing options, that are available to them.”

In the guided discussion that followed, panelists from the Native villages of Kassan, Teller, and Quinhagak shared project successes and lessons learned, providing a glimpse into how the village energy planning and project development process NREL developed is working in practice.

“At the local level, strategic energy planning is a fundamental first step for a community to prioritize which projects will provide the most benefit,” said START team member Alex Dane of NREL, who moderated the panel discussion on “Native Village Energy Planning and Community Project Development Principles.” “START’s approach to strategic energy planning has come in response to a number of questions, such as ‘What should it look like in action and how can the process be replicated,’ ‘How have energy issues affected each village,’ ‘How can START help convene the right stakeholders into the room,’ and ‘How can the energy planning process that DOE … is now tailoring to Alaska Native villages serve as an effective tool for the villages?’” By talking openly about their projects, said Dane, the panelists provided answers to those questions and many more.

One project development challenge Alaska Native villages face, Dane explained, is ensuring that there are members of the community who are trained and employed for the ongoing operation and maintenance of projects once deployed, especially in cases where outside entities go in, install a project, and then leave. “The likelihood of lasting success for renewable energy projects is significantly decreased if there’s no training around their ongoing operation,” said Dane. “Success depends on community support and ownership of the project—how it works, how to maintain it.”

Noting that START is focused on addressing that challenge and others, Dane said the panel discussion he led included “some good brainstorming on how existing and future infrastructure can be better maintained if there’s a more proactive approach to ensuring local capacity through technical training at the regional and local levels.”

Project financing is another challenge Alaska Native villages and corporations face in getting energy projects off the ground, Dane said, pointing to the significant role the Tribal Energy Program has played in providing grant funding for feasibility studies and projects that have enabled Alaska Native entities to make renewable energy a reality. Through START, said Dane, DOE-IE and the Denali Commission are on a mission to help the villages take that project development support one step further by understanding, exploring, and pursuing financing options beyond the traditional grant funding that has laid the foundation for many tribal energy projects in Alaska.

The workshop culminated with a panel discussion moderated by Thomas on “Resources for Community Energy Development,” which covered energy policy, intertribal organizations, regional corporations, education, and financing. In discussing funding and partnership opportunities in Alaska, panelist Joel Neimeyer of the Denali Commission offered a big-picture view of why energy, as the common denominator of all infrastructure at the village level, is a critical community-wide issue for Alaska Natives. Noting that everything—from transportation, electricity, heating, and water, to sanitation and health care services—depends on energy and energy efficiency, Niemeyer underscored the importance of addressing energy challenges proactively.

“The cost of energy (both electricity and heat) has increased threefold in the past 10 years for rural Alaska villages,” said Neimeyer. “Many families are finding that they are spending up to 45% of their monthly income to pay heating, electricity, and sanitation bills. I believe the workshop was successful in identifying strategies and tools for rural Alaska villages to address high energy costs. For me the highlight was learning more about energy tax credits and the opportunities for private businesses to leverage the existing U.S. tax code to invest in rural Alaska energy projects.”

Download the presentations from this workshop.

Learn more about the DOE-IE START Program in Alaska.

—Devin Egan