NREL's Technical Assistance Teams Jump START Energy Projects in Alaska

Dec. 29, 2012

Technical experts from NREL scored big wins recently in supporting some of the five Alaska Native Tribes selected by DOE’s Office of Indian Energy (DOE-IE) to receive on-site renewable energy and energy efficiency technical assistance. The push to advance next-generation energy development in Indian Country is part of DOE-IE’s Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) program, which also includes six selected Tribes in the contiguous United States.

The START Alaska teams were dispatched in July and August to support three communities/projects in need of technical assistance. The following is a summary of their most recent work in Alaska.

Village of Kake
From July 20-25, 2012, START members traveled to the southeast Alaska community of Kake on Kupreanof Island, about an hour’s flight south of Juneau. The team consisted of DOE-IE Deputy Director Pilar Thomas, NREL’s Brian Hirsch and Levi Kilcher, and John Lyons, Connie Fredenberg, and Adam Rein of Marsh Creek, an engineering firm that provides additional technical support. The group arrived at the end of the annual Culture Camp—a week-long session for Native youth to learn about and appreciate traditional ways of life. The visit enabled the team to meet with elders and community youth in addition to continuing their work with the Kake Tribal council. Highlights included:

  • Moving an anemometer tower from a turbulent mountain location high on a remote logging road to an area atop another ridge that is closer to the village and transmission lines
  • Helping find an optimum location for a planned solar panel installation
  • Visiting and conducting preliminary evaluation of three potential hydropower sites
  • Identifying a potential heat recovery project and two distinct biomass thermal opportunities, one of which has already been turned into a grant proposal by the Tribe
  • Leading an energy education session for Kake’s youth
  • Convening a stakeholders meeting with more than 15 state and federal agencies to advance the community’s energy planning efforts
  • Holding a community meeting to report on the energy-related activities of the week and develop an action plan.

Venetie Village
From July 30 – August 2, 2012, a team consisting of Thomas, Hirsch, Kilcher, and Fredenberg, along with several state and regional agencies, visited the Alaska Native community of Venetie, which is part of the 1.8 million-acre reserve that includes Arctic Village, bordering the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the far north. START members assisted Venetie’s tribally owned electric utility to complete the reports and management oversight necessary to reinstate the utility into the state of Alaska’s Power Cost Equalization (PCE) program, which helps to reduce the high cost of power for residential ratepayers and community facilities. Because of the high cost of diesel generated electricity, prior to the START visit, Venetie utility customers were saddled with electric rates of almost 90 cents/kWh. Within six weeks of the team’s visit, the utility’s application was approved for the PCE program, which resulted in local residents seeing a more than 60% decrease in their electricity rates.

Eddie Frank of the Venetie Village Council said the community is thrilled with the START program, and he hopes Venetie can receive further assistance from START to address additional energy issues in the community.

In addition to helping the local utility with the PCE documentation, the team:

  • Provided PCE reporting training to the utility clerk
  • Completed an assessment of the power plant for placement on Alaska Energy Authority’s Rural Power Station Upgrade list
  • Held an education session for local youth
  • Convened a council meeting, stakeholders meeting, and conducted an energy planning session to prioritize the community’s goals for the future
  • Continued to work with the local community, the state of Alaska, and Sandia National Laboratories on a high contribution PV-diesel microgrid conceptual design for future implementation.

Renewable Energy Fair Training
From August 25-28, 2012, START members Hirsch, Kilcher, and Fredenberg accompanied the Energy Champions—individuals selected by each of the five Alaska Native communities—to the Chena Hot Springs Renewable Energy Fair and other renewable energy sites of interest. In addition to seeing and learning about cutting-edge geothermal, biomass, and other energy projects being piloted by the Chena Hot Springs Resort, they visited:

  • A biomass combined heat and power plant at the school in Tok
  • A growing wind farm in Delta
  • A cardboard waste-to-power plant and a wood pellet plant in North Pole
  • A renewable energy equipment dealer in Fairbanks
  • The Cold Climate Housing Research Center and the University of Alaska’s Center for Energy and Power in Fairbanks.

Native Village of Kwinhagak
Along with the successful site visits summarized above, the START Alaska team also recently helped the Native Village of Kwinhagak complete and submit a grant application to the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund for a diesel generator and wind farm heat recovery project. The project idea was identified by the START staff, but the local community, along with the electric utility and water and waste water management entity, drafted the proposal.

The community seeks $668,350 for the project, which is expected to save more than 14,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually that is currently used for heating above ground water and sewer lines that cannot be buried in the community’s saturated soils. Given the community’s shortage of bulk fuel storage, this will directly translate into reduced fuel shipments in the spring, as fuel is flown in via 55-gallon drums before the barge can return for an annual filling of the tanks in the ice-free summer.

Though the money has not yet been allocated, the grant submission is a key objective of the START program to leverage energy efficiency and renewable energy projects with additional funding.

”This was an explicit goal of START Alaska from the beginning,” said Hirsch, who is a senior project leader for NREL’s Alaska initiative. “Most of the planning efforts eventually require funding to implement, and we aim for our technical assistance to result in good projects that merit support, both from within the community and from outside funders.”

In addition to the START Program, NREL is also supporting DOE-IE’s education, transmission, and communication efforts. Learn more about the START Program on the DOE-IE website.

—Devin Egan