Strengthening Renewable Energy in Sitka
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project (ETIPP) runs initiatives in remote communities to build local, sustainable energy systems. One will be in Sitka and will benefit Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos.
The goal is to build energy resilience and plan for a renewable energy future to overcome the lack of connectivity to the main grid. There are nine projects, from Hawaii to Maine.
“Alaska has the highest energy prices in the country. Many communities use diesel, which causes pollution. Renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro, or geothermal) provides cheaper electricity and protects residents’ pocketbooks and health,” Caroline McGregor, director of DOE’s ETIPP program, tells Sol de Medianoche.
McGregor says Sitka “relies on seasonal hydroelectric power from the lake and an aging diesel microgrid. In five to ten years, energy demand is expected to increase and exceed generation. If nothing is done, there will be power shortages. But improvements will ensure prosperity and economic development.
There are other similar projects - Ouzinkie, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Nikolski & St. George, Igiugig and McGregor. “Access to affordable energy is at the heart of energy justice,” says McGregor. “Disadvantaged communities often live in older, less well-maintained and less efficient housing with high energy costs. Communities of color and low-income families pay significantly more of their income on energy bills and have less money to spend on everything else, from food to education.”
“In addition,” she continues, “fossil fuel power plants are located in low-income communities and harm the health of residents. It is important that renewable energy planning is based on the participation of disadvantaged communities to understand their needs and ensure equitable outcomes.”
For their part, Chris Rose, executive director, and Rob Jordan, microgrid coordinator for the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), told Sol de Medianoche that Alaskans “waste more than $1 billion in energy every year. They are wasting fuel that is not being burned efficiently, and they want local, clean, stable renewable energy, so the pace of the energy transition needs to pick up.
Although there are villages in Alaska that don’t see the sun for about two months of the year, the high cost of energy makes solar an attractive investment. With the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels dropping by 90% in the last decade, PV power makes sense even if it doesn’t shine all the time. Communities as far north as Kotzebue are investing in solar because the cost of diesel power is so high.
Andrew Thoms, one of Sitka’s renewable energy leaders, wants 99% renewable energy. “It is the only guarantee of prosperity,” he tells Sol de Medianoche. “Our main industry is salmon fishing and trading. With diesel, costs skyrocket. With energy efficiency and renewable energy, there will be more productivity, more profits, and jobs will multiply. This will benefit the indigenous, Asian, and Latino workers, who are our main workforce.”