Tribal Energy Summit: Arctic Opportunities for Indian Country

Highlighting the Obama administration’s national security strategies, the Arctic Council Chairmanship, the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, and the recent GLACIER Conference in Anchorage, moderator Capt. Mark Davis of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) brought attention to the Arctic challenges for Indian country at the Sept. 24 DOE Tribal Energy Summit.


Focusing on increased access to oil, gas and minerals, and increased accessibility to Arctic maritime routes, Davis said the U.S. and Arctic peoples must leverage science, technology and innovation in order to guide what happens in this part of the world.


The panelists included:

  • Jacqualine Qataliña Schaeffer, Project Specialist, Energy WHPacific, Inc.
  • Kip Knudson, Gov. Bill Walker’s Senior DC Representative, State of Alaska
  • Givey Kochanowski, Alaska Program Manager, DOE’s Office of Indian Energy


First, Schaeffer highlighted that Arctic people are no different than other indigenous peoples of the nation: All are connected to place and land, which binds the people together as people of America. But the thread that binds the community and betters the lives of the people is energy.


Schaeffer discussed her role in working with tribal and city governments on rural community transportation and energy challenges. Arctic communities are diverse and thriving, but “not being tapped into,” she said, and should be thought of as representative of the nation, especially in the context of the Arctic Council.


In communities that depend on energy, tribal leaders have always emphasized holistic approaches. Infrastructure, housing, water systems, renewable technologies, landfills, and transportation must be connected to the diverse Alaska cultures, Schaeffer said. Food security means relying on land, sea and air for the food supply, and responsible development needs to be discussed in the context of food security.


The global energy market has impacted the state, but even with low world oil prices, villages are still paying $7-10 a gallon for fuel, and water is $8.15 per gallon, if they have access to it. Human needs for water, food and shelter are all connected to energy, Schaeffer emphasized.


While shrinking glaciers impact the whole globe, other events also need to be viewed from a global perspective. Permafrost thawing in Alaska releases methane that affect the entire atmosphere. The thaw also destroys water and sewer systems and other infrastructure that villages waited decades to build, and have to revert back to honeybuckets again—or they never get the water and sewer system promised because of the changing ground.


Schaeffer said villages also face energy efficiency issues with Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) funding and the lack of standards for Arctic house designs, despite housing authorities’ efforts to obtain science-approved regulations. Renewable energy sources cannot be integrated into village homes that have been severely damaged by permafrost thaw. Schaeffer said rural Alaska’s unique environment requires innovative designs, especially when standard 900 square foot homes are barely affordable and energy inefficient.


“If you have to choose between feeding your kids and fueling your house, how can that be a healing place?” Schaeffer asked.


Schaeffer noted the difficulties of getting funds and using them for a three-month construction season. Projects need to be phased appropriately in terms of this short season, and in accordance to the climate itself, she said.


While education is necessary for a bright future of leadership in Indian Country, not everyone needs to be an engineer, she said. But everyone should know more about how to integrate energy mechanisms in order to use them.


Schaeffer said she worked with the Association of Village Council Presidents in a community outside of Bethel to prioritize and address rural challenges. She said the U.S. needs to change the way it looks at community development by maximizing the use state and federal dollars to benefit more people.


Knudson described Alaska’s geographical expanse in the context of President Barack Obama’s experience in the state from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2.


Regarding the Alaska grid system, Knudson said the state puts the “micro” in micro-grid; more than 200 villages depend on diesel generation with limited distribution systems.


Knudson said one of Gov. Walker’s priorities is to reduce energy costs in rural areas. With $1 per kilowatt hour, villages face tough choices to afford electricity—aside from kerosene-based heating. In rural Alaska, the household burden is 20-30 percent of income dedicated to cover heat, electricity and transportation, which is “unacceptable in the long run,” he said.


To address this particular challenge, Knudson said, Gov. Walker has focused on monetizing the state’s natural gas deposits, bringing them to market and exporting them as liquefied natural gas (LNG), while also planning to ship LNG to villages as an alternative to diesel. He said this could also generate revenue for the state that could be used for renewable energy sources.


Knudson noted the number of entities dedicated to using various state mechanisms to reducing the cost of energy. They include the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, Alaska Energy Authority, Alaska Industrial Export and Development Authority, Cold Climate Housing Research Center, the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, and more.


Knudson highlighted the tribal and local governments that are individually invested in this effort and looking to partner with the U.S. government. These challenges are receiving more national attention, as evidenced by the President’s visit to Alaska and, with an international focus, the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council has focused on micro-grids and offers a forum for learning about other Arctic nations’ experiences and technologies.


Knudson said Alaska is on track to be 50 percent renewable by 2025 and increase efficiency by 2020, but will require more funding to reach these goals. The Renewable Energy Fund (REF) spent $250 million over the course of seven years on investments in renewable technology, including 300 grants for 259 projects since 2008. Tribal entities received 43 of the grants and Alaska Native corporations received more than 100.


Knudson said big savings came out of gas, wind and hydro projects. The benefit to cost ratio is 2.8 for investing in renewable energy in the state, with hydropower having great potential despite the long permitting process.


Reviewing the REF projects, Knudson asked the public and private partners in attendance to come up with off-the-shelf parts to integrate various renewable technologies with diesel technology, which will not be phased out of the villages anytime soon.


“If renewable energy technologies work in Alaska, it’ll work anywhere, given the highly challenging climate,” he said.


Knudson invited the audience to attend the Rural Energy Conference in Fairbanks in April 2016 to present technologies and investments for rural energy.


Kochanowski said half of DOE’s Indian Energy Programs are based in Alaska, and the Arctic impacts everyone in the U.S., reminding the audience about the Chinese warships in the Bering Sea during the President’s visit.


With energy, Alaska issues are American issues and relevant to all 50 states: workforce development, government coordination, and advancing hybrid technologies. All of these underpin the federal Arctic needs in U.S. renewable interests, he said, and emphasize the need to stretch dollars.


Discussing Arctic challenges, Kochanowski said the Arctic Council is just a “talking group.” Arctic strategies will last much longer than the Arctic Council chairmanship. The President’s National Strategy goes eight years beyond the chairmanship, and it’s crucial not to lose sight of action items after the April 2017 ministerial. A second challenge is command and control: the Arctic isn’t just a focus of DOE, and government-to-government consultation is central to this.


Kochanowski said he hopes the Arctic Energy Office makes a reprise in DOE, and noted he is the only DOE employee in Alaska.


Kochanowski said DOE is working with the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to produce the Rural Utilities Study in the next four to five months to provide more context for showing the gaps in rural utilities.


Kochanowski highlighted the valuable work of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and its web resources regarding rural energy efficiency and housing.


Referring to the Sept. 18 Alaska Public Media special on the Arctic Council featuring Craig Fleener and Nils Andreassen, Kochanowski concluded the only reason why America is an Arctic nation is because of Alaska, that virtually everything Alaska does impacts the Arctic, and everything in the Arctic impacts Alaska. With that in mind, Alaska comprises 20 percent of the U.S. total land mass and contains many resources that are necessary for security and energy. The U.S. has many friends and foes that are interested in these resources.


Lastly, Kochanowski reminded the audience that all challenges in the Arctic present opportunities for Alaska, and the U.S. as a whole.