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Addressing concerns about pollution with microgrids in Alaska

May 30, 2017


Sita Kouhi

Gwen Holdmann, Director, Alaska Center for Energy and Power
Gwen Holdmann, Director, Alaska Center for Energy and Power, Anchorage Museum, May 12, 2017. (Photo credit: Sita Kouhi)
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

On May 10, 2017, at the Arctic Council meeting, one of the Fairbanks residents spoke about livelihood in the city. Stacey Stoudt, who holds an MA in oceanography from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is not optimistic about the future of the Arctic region in the era of climate change. She spoke about pollution, which is causing health concerns such as lung disease among the residents. In wintertime, the use of diesel and wood in Fairbanks causes not only health concerns but also harmful carbon emissions, which directly affect the delicate Arctic region. Surface air temperature in the Arctic region is rising faster than anywhere else in the world. This leads to various impacts, including sea ice loss, glacial retreat, and increasing Arctic wildfires. These regional changes directly affect parts of the United States, but have global impacts as well. For instance, warming at high latitudes causes permafrost thaw, which can result in increased emissions of soil carbon dioxide and methane that leads to further warming.

Many Alaskan communities currently use expensive, environmentally costly fuel to provide the power they need. For instance, during harsh winters, it is very difficult to deliver fuel to Indigenous communities in Alaska’s Norwest Borough and North Slope The delicacy of the environment and the challenging of energy delivery in cold weather make the Arctic region a prime candidate for renewable energy.

The 2016 U.S- Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, Arctic Leadership includes clean energy strategies, such as solar and wind, to reduce reliance on diesel in the Arctic regions: “With partners, we will develop and share a plan and timeline for deploying innovative renewable energy and efficiency alternatives to diesel and advance community climate change adaptation.” One participant at the Arctic Council meeting in Anchorage suggested that this strategy has not been successful. For instance, the dark gray smoke from exhaust pipe of cars and buses are easily noticeable both in Fairbanks and Anchorage. During rush hours, this participant noted, it is hard to breathe as dark gray smoke covers the surroundings. The use of diesel and wood must be reconsidered to prevent environmental toxicity.

Despite the consumption of vast use of diesel in Alaska, many small private organizations such as Alaska Center for Energy and Power and Alaska Village Electric Cooperative are trying to change reduce pollution and the affects of climate change. They believe, with today’s renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, they can solve the climate crisis. On May 12, 2017, many guest speakers around the Arctic met at North-by-North, Innovate Arctic at the Anchorage Museum to share their innovative strategies and experiences in the region. Meera Kohler, President and CEO of Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, who has spent half of her life in India, was one of them. Her organization utility serves more than 10,800 consumers in 57communities, half of Alaska’s village population. The Kaltag Solar Project is one of Alaska Village Electric’s successful solar grids. The project not only helps the communities to access power, but also it prevents pollution.

Economically, microgrids, small-scale power networks with an independent power resource such, solar, wind, or nuclear, cost less than fossil fuels. In the meeting at the Anchorage Museum, I witnessed the importance of renewable energy on climate change and health concerns among the residents. Renewable energy reduces dependency on costly diesel fuel, which produces harmful emission and has detrimental effect on health. Also new technological development in nuclear energy can provide opportunities for economic development while it decreases the reliance on fossil fuels.

In conclusion, to protect and save the Arctic, serious decisions must be taken to prevent the region from carbon emission. New technological development and investment is necessary. Implementation of solar, wind, and nuclear energy is a high priority in the region.

This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.