NANA Regional Corporation helped take a community in Buckland, Alaska, located just shy of the Arctic Circle, from traditional power to a modern microgrid. (NANA Corporation)
This article originally appeared in Native Business Magazine’s January/February 2019 “Energy” print edition. It was updated in May 2020.
Al “Sonny” Adams, NANA Regional Corporation’s director of alternative energy, could nearly hear eyes roll when he talked about bringing solar energy to rural Alaska. But now eyes light up when he shares how renewables are off-setting exorbitantly high power costs in a sparsely inhabited region, accessible only via plane or boat.
Residents of the 11 remote Alaska Native village communities in this Northwest Arctic Borough were paying through the nose — some more than $1,000 per month — for natural gas and heating oil, and they had had enough.
Enter NANA Regional Corporation Inc. (NANA), a for-profit corporation and one of the 13 Alaska Native regional corporations created as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. NANA’s stated mission is to: “improve the quality of life for shareholders by maximizing economic growth, protecting and enhancing our lands and promoting healthy communities with decisions, actions and behaviors inspired by our Iñupiat Ilitqusiat values consistent with our core principles.”
It does so via its subsidiaries, which provide services to the resource development industries, healthcare and education sectors, and federal contracting services, as well as through NANA-owned natural resource interests, including Red Dog Mine — one of the world’s largest zinc deposits.
As part of NANA’s commitment to its more than 14,500 Iñupiaq shareholders, it has a social responsibility as well as a fiduciary one. As such, it must provide employment opportunities and lifestyle support to its subsistence-focused owners. This includes ensuring the survival of its shareholders, including economic survivability, in some of the globe’s harshest living and working conditions.
But such a lifestyle doesn’t come cheap. With the cost of living in Kotzebue, the region’s largest village, 61% more than Anchorage — already 27% higher than the U.S. average — villages are now seeking cheaper energy that is also more consistent with their core environmental values.
Outrageous energy prices derive from, according to NANA data, liquified natural gas and fuel oil that can run from $3.35 to $10.04 per gallon, or roughly two to three times the price in the continental U.S. — and for a much longer, colder winter, it should be noted. NANA also shows electricity pricing at $0.45 to $0.91 per kWh, which is subsidized by the state, compared to the average cost of a kWh at $0.10 in the Lower 48.
Part of the problem, according to Sonny Adams, is that fuel must be purchased three to six months in advance, making buying akin to gambling. Moreover, fuel deliveries can only take place after the ice has broken up. Worse, once fuel supplies are exhausted, emergency fuel must be brought in by air, exacerbating the cost of energy. This seems ironic in fuel-rich Alaska, but the closest refineries are located on its southern coast.
What started was a thinking-out-loud exercise with knowledge that Germany had done something similar with much less annual light available. In fact, Alaska has 219 more hours of light than countries at the equator. Although Buckland, Alaska, sits at roughly 66°N latitude — nearly on the Arctic Circle — the Land of the Midnight Sun also averages between 10 and 17 minutes more sunshine year-round than any state in the Lower 48. This makes solar energy a reasonable option from April through September — even longer as global warming extends Alaska’s use of solar energy to cover the decreasing temperature gap during its increasing warmer weather season.
NANA’s job? How to capitalize on that.
According to Adams, the planning dates back to the 2009 NANA Strategic Energy Plan (SEP), which led to an energy analysis to identify renewable energy resources located in proximity with the 11 villages in the 38,000 square miles of this Northwest Arctic Borough. They looked at everything — solar, wind, batteries, geothermal — “anything that would hold down energy costs,” Adams told Native Business Magazine. NANA also held an energy forum the same year to better understand the challenges they might face and to render solutions for various options. A survey of the villagers provided the last piece of the puzzle: Would they support it? The answer was a resounding “yes,” as long as it didn’t impact their subsistence living and traditional practices. NANA then formed a regional energy committee, which included all stakeholders and generated an energy plan that forms the basis for the solar program today.
While geothermal was also identified as a possible source of renewable energy, the $450,000 per mile price tag for the transmission line was prohibitive. The Kotzebue wind farm, the largest in Alaska, has been running since the late 1990s, and a proven source that has been expanded several times. Solar energy was also determined to be feasible. It was a matter of money — and collaboration — from that point onward.
The total program price tag was $2,000,000, with the Department of Energy (DOE) through the National Energy Renewable Laboratory (NREL) kicking in $1,000,000 to launch the program in three villages: Buckland, Kotzebue and Deering. Each village had to come up with a portion of the balance in matching funds, with Buckland coming up with the funds first. Their stakeholders also came up with in-kind contributions to move things along (gravel, equipment), with the only request being that funds be used to pay City of Buckland employees who performed the work.
The Buckland solar installation is now complete and producing. A video of the project can be viewed at www.boxpower.io. “The goal here is once you have solar, wind and batteries, to go ‘diesel off,’” said Adams. “…And once they have batteries, they’ll have year-round supplemental energy to further cut costs.”
On July 24, 2019, Buckland shut down its diesel generators and tested a combination of wind, battery and solar power — a clean energy solution that powered the community for six consecutive hours. The successful effort took the community from traditional power to a modern microgrid.
Adams is encouraged. He relayed that when he briefs the project around the country, he always surprises people in how quickly the project was implemented. “I can tell you, though, that people are amazed that we went from making a regional energy plan and getting it implemented tangibly in Alaska.” He chalked that up to the incredible collaboration they had amongst stakeholders across the region — and the lack of infighting. They just wanted success. He also credited Launch Alaska, a business accelerator working in the energy industry, for their solid support.
Erik Weber, supervising operator of the Buckland Water System, lauded the cooperative spirit of the stakeholders as well: “Everyone in the community and on the council was so supportive. We had easy-to-assemble, well-designed products from Box Power, great local management from David Rolland, an excellent electrician named Tim Weidensee, and an educated, hardworking local crew. Everyone pitched in. The mayor Tim Gavin Jr., as part of the City’s in-kind services, led a crew, building fences around the utility complex. Everything went smoother than any construction project I’ve ever seen. The timeline was accelerated by months from what was projected!” Other governments could take a page from that book.
On April 3, 2020, the region’s second installed microgrid system, located in Deering, reached a separate diesel-off milestone for 44% of the day using 70% solar and wind energy.
This summer, from April to September, NANA plans to collect a full season’s worth of combined solar, wind and battery microgrid data from the Buckland and Deering projects. Once collected and analyzed, the data will provide a better picture of the microgrid energy savings performance.
The microgrid systems are one step in a lengthy process to lowering the region’s energy bills and dependence on imported fuels. Like most new developments, it will take time, but it’s a step in the right direction.