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Developing rural Alaska: ANCs address energy crisis and infrastructure needs.


High energy costs and infrastructure needs are a common theme in rural communities across Alaska. As state and federal funding has continued to decrease, some Alaska Native corporations have become integral in finding energy and infrastructure solutions for villages in their region.

Whether through renewal energy projects or infrastructure improvements, these corporations aim to reduce the outmigration of residents in their communities and to answer the needs of the people back home.

Old Harbor Native Corporation

Old Harbor Native Corporation has worked with the City of Old Harbor and the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor since 2006 to develop a community plan that included many of the infrastructure improvement projects the community has been working on to date.

Old Harbor Native Corporation, in collaboration with the City of Old Harbor, has successfully completed the Boat Harbor Replacement Project and the City Dock Replacement Project and is currently overseeing the ongoing Old Harbor Airport Safety & Expansion Project, says Cynthia Berns, vice president of administration and external affairs at Old Harbor Native Corporation.

The community is in the process of permitting a hydroelectric project with AVEC, the electric provider for the community, she says.

"The corporation has been involved in the development of Old Harbor by providing the backbone to keeping these projects moving forward," Berns says. "We provide a lot of support to the city and tribe for pursuing funding that makes these projects viable and ultimately to be completed. The corporation provides in-kind project management to the city and tribe for various projects from inception to completion."

In 2010 the City of Old Harbor and Old Harbor Native Corporation completed the replacement of the small boat inner harbor facility, which provides a safer facility for commercial fishermen, sports fishing businesses, and subsistence activities in the village, Berns says.

In 2011 the corporation completed the construction of a new dock facility, which was required in order to maintain fuel delivery service to the community, Berns says. It also provided ferry service, economic development prospects, and an overall safer facility for public use.

"Although not all our shareholders are in the village, there's an understanding that Old Harbor is our home, and this is where we're all from," Berns says. "There's such a huge rural to urban outmigration, and the concern arises when the school reaches less than ten students and closes which can ultimately shut down a community, and we don't want our community to die. Having a board of directors who really believes in supporting our community has helped our village thrive and continue to do well into the future."

The city and corporation began the Old Harbor Airport Safety & Expansion Project in 2012, which is ongoing due to budget constraints, Berns says. The two thousand-foot airport expansion project is a partnership between the corporation, the city, the state, and the federal government. The goal of the project will be to level out the slopes along the edge of the runway, a safety concern for pilots, while extending the runway to accommodate larger aircraft and provide economic development opportunities. The project is about 50 percent complete through work with a contractor and the Innovative Readiness Training program with the US Department of Defense, she says.

"The Innovative Readiness Training program provides support to projects across the nation and they bring all their own equipment, temporary housing, and personnel," Berns says. "The corporation was able to leverage the program with the Marines picking up the project and providing support from 2013 forward."

This year 320 reservists and 32 Alaska Army National Guard members, with about 47 personnel at a time, will help build the airport extension from late-April to July.

The goal of the infrastructure projects is ultimately to build a fish processing plant in Old Harbor, Berns says. A fish processing plant would provide direct jobs, create a fish tax for the city, increase ex-vessel fish prices, and provide value-added prospects and all support businesses that go along with a fish processing plant.

Ahtna, Inc.

The regional corporation of Ahtna, Inc., based in Glennallen, is answering the energy crisis in two fronts--natural gas and renewable energy.

Ahtna's Tolsona natural gas project was scheduled to begin drilling on state-owned lands in April. Located about ten miles west of Glennallen, Ahtna began by completing an access road and drill pad in January, mobilizing a drill rig in February, and drilling an expected new well to a depth of about five thousand feet, says Joe Bovee, vice president of land and resources at Ahtna.

"We started the Tolsona Oil and Gas project about six years ago in the application process," Bovee says. "At that time we had a fair idea of the size of the field out here. Knowing that it's not going to be a Cook Inlet or Point Thomson sized gas field, we were moving forward even five years ago with the assumption that if we get enough local gas up here it would be a game changer for the local economy."

Even if the Tolsona Oil and Gas project is successful, Ahtna must still find a solution for distribution.

Out of four independent utilities companies in the region--Golden Valley Electric, Alaska Power & Telephone, Copper Valley Electric, and Chitina Electric--none of the utilities are tied together, Bovee says; however, there are nearly a thousand miles of electrical transmission and distribution lines in the area.

Bovee says to look at this in the bigger picture, if the state of Alaska tied the utilities together, there would not only be a market for the gas, but it would also save the state millions of dollars a year in what the companies pay in PCEs (power cost equalizations) to cover the additional surcharge in diesel fuel that most of them use.

"The Ahtna region uses about 4.5 million gallons of diesel fuel in a year," Bovee says. "If you put a number to that of $3 a gallon, [and diesel is] currently a little less than that, that's $6 billion that goes into people's pockets in Houston or London. So the more we can do with renewable energy--which keeps the dollars local--is going to help. Every dollar we can save here will stay here."

Ahtna is looking to assist in multiple renewable energy projects within its region, but the closest to coming online is a pellet mill biomass project in Gulkana expected to open in early spring, Bovee says. The Gulkana pellet mill is expected to displace about 380,000 gallons of fossil fuel annually.

The Native Village of Gulkana is developing and managing the mill, with Ahtna providing technical support, grant writing, and the timber resources to the pellet mill.

"Rural Alaska has been in the midst of this energy crisis for decades," says Michelle Anderson, president of Ahtna. "There has been no statewide solution, no regional solution, and really it's come down to the local residents in each region to come up with the solutions. This should be a growing concern for the state though. Communities are coming up with solutions that fit them, but not necessarily fit together as you branch out farther and farther."

NANA Regional Corporation

In 2008, leaders from NANA Regional Corporation and Northwest Alaska recognized the need to address the energy crisis in rural Alaska caused by the high cost of energy, so the region developed an energy plan, and its efforts continue today.

According to Sonny Adams, director of energy at NANA, the energy plan began by analyzing each regional community to see which renewable resource would best fit that particular village, whether it be biomass, hydro, solar, or wind projects.

"The plan was not based on the regional corporations or an external organization's decision regarding energy solutions for each community. It was NANA and partnering agencies listening to each community and what that community wanted," Adams says.

NANA began with energy efficiency and spent $1.9 million in funding for RurAL CAP to implement the EnergyWise program in the NANA region. Crews of four to ten people per village conducted basic energy efficiency upgrades in homes across NANA's eleven communities. Residents were given cost-free energy saving devices like power strips and winterization materials. The project was a win/win, lowering energy bills for regional consumers and creating local hire opportunities to winterize homes.

Recent larger-scale renewable energy plan accomplishments in the NANA region include the final commissioning of wind projects in the villages of Deering and Buckland this past summer. The challenge for these projects now is optimizing circuits for wind generation that were made for diesel power generation. Kotzebue Electric Association and the Northwest Arctic Borough have taken the lead in final commissioning for these two wind systems.

Kotzebue Electric is also currently working on commissioning a new battery system for the longstanding wind farm in Kotzebue. The new system will maximize the renewable energy potential of the wind resource.

A future renewable energy project with some promise in the NANA region is the potential for solar power in the village of Shungnak, located about 10 miles downstream from the village of Kobuk and 150 air miles east of Kotzebue.

Shungnak was selected last May to receive technical assistance through the US Department of Energy Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team Program. The program helps communities develop strategic energy plans, conduct energy awareness and training programs, and pursue new renewable energy and energy efficiency opportunities. A recent wind study was also completed in Shungnak, and NANA is partnering with Shungnak IRA to apply for renewable energy funding from the Alaska Energy Authority, Adams says.

As NANA looks at renewable energy projects in its region, Adams says the corporation must keep all of its connections with partnering and funding organizations to continue to face the ongoing energy crisis across rural Alaska for the good of the economy of the region and the state.

"It's important to maintain the sense of urgency that things need to change in rural Alaska," Adams says. "We need to keep the rural energy crisis front and center in the minds of policymakers. We can't keep starting back a zero when administrations or department heads change. Rural Alaska is a key player in the emerging Arctic Alaska economy. It is in all of our best interest to solve rural energy obstacles so we can full participate in the economic opportunities of an American Arctic."

Russ Staten is an Alaskan writer.
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Comment:Developing rural Alaska: ANCs address energy crisis and infrastructure needs.(ALASKA NATIVE CORPORATIONS)
Author:Slaten, Russ
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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