PUBLISHED: 4:51 PM on Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Energy challenges and opportunities within the Yukon River watershed
Brain Power
The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC) is a coalition of 66 tribes and First Nations in Alaska and Canada united in protecting the Yukon River, the fourth-largest drainage basin in North America. The Yukon River is home to over 11% of all tribes in the U.S. Most of the Alaska Native communities are not on the road system and can only be accessed by plane, boat or snow machine.

The YRITWC formed in 1997 out of concern for clean water and the plants, animals and humans that depend on this 2,200-mile river and its tributaries. In the past several years, as climate change and energy costs have increased, the connection between clean water and clean energy has formalized. The YRITWC's leaders directed the organization's staff to pursue clean energy initiatives such as community energy education, implementing conservation and efficiency measures and developing renewable solar, wind and hydropower resources. After a year of responding to this directive with almost no budget, the YRITWC was awarded a three-year, $660,000 implementation grant from the Administration for Native Americans and a $75,000 one-year energy policy and advocacy grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

The energy context

Most electricity in the remote communities of the watershed is produced by diesel generator with flown- or barged-in fuel; both methods of transportation have inherent spill risks. Prices range from about $0.20 - $1.00/kWh, with most villages paying on the higher end of this spread. For comparison, electricity is purchased for about $0.14/kWh in Anchorage. Gasoline for local transportation hovers around $6.50/gallon on average, with some communities paying over $9.00 when gasoline is available at all. In some places energy is now being rationed, and Alaska's urban areas are now starting to see "energy refugees" from the villages.

Many of the communities are quite small - between 100 and 300 residents - and generally operate their own electric "mini-grid" that is isolated from any other community. Institutional issues, however, can be quite complex, with a mixture of municipality, tribe, Native village and/or regional corporation, private fuel shipper and co-op or independent utility all potentially involved in meeting the community's energy needs. Add to this the usual overlay of state, federal, non-profit, and regional assistance organizations and one can see the challengers in making sense of, let alone solving, the rural Alaska energy picture.

A search for solutions

It is no wonder that remote communities have begun a wide-ranging search for alternatives to the current system. Some non-renewable technologies being investigated are an experimental nuclear reactor for the community of Galena, coal bed methane, mine-mouth coal plants and expanded oil and gas development in frontier regions. All of these options have significant drawbacks, including community opposition, pollution and climate change impacts, incompatible land uses, very long lead times and possible high costs. Most of these technologies require large-scale implementation to be cost effective yet most of the communities are quite small.

Some renewable alternatives that are now being actively investigated are biomass, in-stream hydrokinetic, wind, solar, geothermal and of course, conservation and efficiency improvements. Many of these technologies have already been installed on a pilot project basis with plans for expansion. For example, the community of Tanana has installed a large wood-fired heating unit to displace diesel fuel in a community building, while the communities of Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon and Beaver already have a combined installed capacity of over 10 kW of solar electric (PV) systems. Wind power is now being used near the mouth of the Yukon where it meets the Bering Sea, while geothermal power at Chena Hot Springs provides a model for other communities to replicate where possible. The YRITWC Energy Department will be collecting data on existing renewable energy production systems within the watershed.

Of course, these alternative technologies face challenges as well, including intermittent availability of renewable resources such as the sun or wind, distance from the resource to the demand centers and costs. However, local interest and support is strong and generally these technologies can be appropriately scaled to fit the size and demand of the community. Renewable resources also have the advantage of no cost increase over time since there is no fuel to purchase regularly, only system maintenance and occasional capital upgrades or replacements.

YRITWC is working with the Interior Regional Housing Authority, Alaska Building Science Network, the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and the UAF Cooperative Extension Service to conduct trainings in villages on home energy conservation and energy awareness.

For more information on the YRITWC visit www.yritwc or call 907-258-3337.

Brian Hirsch is the YRITWC energy program manager. He can be reached at