How an Alaska village’s switch to renewable energy helps local Native economies

In the remote village of Ambler, Alaska, temperatures can fall to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, so heating the community is a big job. This past September, Ambler switched to a renewable energy option in an effort to go greener — a change that also means a path toward a more sustainable economy for Alaska Native communities. Alaska Public Media's Elyssa Loughlin reports.

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  • John Yang:

    In the remote village of Ambler, Alaska, temperatures can fall to 60 below in the winter, so heating the community is a big job. In September, in an effort to go a little greener, Ambler switched to a renewable energy option. Alaska Public Media's Elyssa Loughlin reports that the change means both a path toward cleaner energy and a more sustainable economy for Alaska Native communities.

  • Elyssa Loughlin, Alaska Public Media:

    Woodrow Grist is keeping the fire alive that fuels Ambler's new biomass furnace. It uses locally harvested cordwood to heat the community's water system and public facilities.

    Now, instead of burning fuel oil, a fossil fuel, the town's main offices are largely heated by a renewable resource. Ambler mayor Morgan Johnson expects the furnace to divert the town's limited fuel stores to private residences.

  • Mayor Morgan Johnson, Ambler, Alaska:

    We haven't been putting fuel in the fuel tanks so far, just the operators are keeping the fire going and hopefully that can happen throughout the winter, you know, and we can save a lot of money and dollar.

  • Elyssa Loughlin:

    The biomass furnace system, which was installed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been running since September.

  • Morgan Johnson:

    See, that's what I'm talking about.

  • Elyssa Loughlin:

    This is a welcome source of renewable energy in remote Alaska, where fuel prices aren't especially high burden. Northwest Arctic Borough Energy Manager Ingemar Mathiasson says the city's situation is even more precarious now due to climate change. As spring comes earlier and snowmelt recedes, the Kobuk River, which flows through Ambler, doesn't always stay high enough for fuel barges to make it to the city safely. That can force residents to rely on planes, the most expensive form of transportation.

    Ingemar Mathiasson, Energy manager, Northwest Arctic Borough: You're dependent on far away conflicts like in the particular case right now where Russia invade Ukraine. That raises the cost for the entire world's supply of oil. And you don't want those. If you want stability, sustainability, you want to do the renewable resources at home first as much as you can.

  • Elyssa Loughlin:

    The biomass furnace system was installed in part because the forests surrounding Ambler are an easy resource for wood to fuel the furnace. Project Manager Katya Karankevich says a steep jump in the price of heating fuel last fall made the system even more important.

  • Katya Karankevich, Energy Manager, Alaska Native Tribe Health Consortium:

    It is a fantastic time for the system to come in to focus because it will be saving a lot more than originally projected.

  • Elyssa Loughlin:

    With the new system, the city will cut its annual oil consumption by an estimated 3500 gallons. That's $50,000 a year that will stay in Ambler.

  • Katya Karankevich:

    You get the financial benefits of more jobs for biomass operators, more jobs for woodcutters, less cost for the city to have to operate and keep their doors open to the laundry and the shower services. But then second fold, the community is more independent.

  • Elyssa Loughlin:

    Renewable Energy Systems like the Ambler furnace create a circular economy in the communities they serve. In Ambler, residents are paid for the wood that they gather, chop, and deliver to fuel the stove. And the money the city saves on fuel can be reallocated to supporting its residents. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has active projects in more than 80 communities across the state. These renewable energy systems that harvest wind, water and other sources are expected to keep money in communities and put Alaskans on a path toward a more sustainable future. Projects like these mean a lot to rural Alaskans, where the cost of living makes everything that much harder.

    But lifelong Ambler Resident Brian Visocky believes renewable energy systems are an opportunity to change that and so much more.

  • Brian Visocky, Ambler Resident:

    So, we can be independent and we can do the things that we need to do and feel a sense of pride. You know, if you're working, if you're clean, you feel better. You know, it's just the way it is. If you can provide for your family, buy shoes for your kids, food on the table, that is a simple pride. It always has been for me. Now you're going to get me emotional.

  • Elyssa Loughlin:

    While the furnace systems may not be the right choice for every rural area, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium says they're continuing to help Alaska native communities, develop renewable energy systems and move away from using fossil fuels. For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Elyssa Loughlin.

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