Researchers Show How Energy Innovation Benefits the Alaskan Bush 

By Edward W. Lempinen, American Association for the Advancement of Science:
DILLINGHAM, Alaska—Tom Marsik and Kristin Donaldson are building a house a few minutes’ drive from the center of this small city, a two-story model with peat-brown vinyl siding that blends easily with the yellows and golds of the tundra in early autumn. The location is stunning, but it’s only from the inside that you see the building’s defining characteristic: White-painted walls that are more than two feet thick.

Built largely on the rigorous codes of Passive House standard, the living space is like a box that has been hermetically sealed, then wrapped in a thick blanket of insulation and placed snugly within a bigger box. Though the house is filled with bright natural light and fresh air, it is virtually air-tight. One night last winter, when the temperature was near zero outside, it was still over 50 degrees inside—without the use of a heater.

“This may be the tightest house in the United States,” Marsik says. “It may also be the most insulated, but I haven’t researched that thoroughly yet.”

Marsik is an assistant professor of sustainable energy at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Bristol Bay campus, and at the annual meeting of the AAAS Arctic Division, he and his colleagues described a range of ambitious projects that are beginning to change Dillingham from a diesel-powered fishing center to a laboratory for deriving energy from wind, sun, and tides.

The meeting, held 21-24 September, drew nearly 200 researchers, educators, policymakers, and students to the Arctic Division’s first-ever meeting in the Alaskan Bush. They came from Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada, and Siberia for a rich program focused on Arctic ecosystems and how humans interact with them.

In Dillingham, they found a town with the hard-scrabble feel of the Old West, but updated: A black wind turbine whirrs outside the local courts building. At the main building of the Bristol Bay campus, south-facing walls feature 24 midnight-blue solar panels, and an increasing number of public buildings and private homes are installing windmills or going solar, too.

In Search of Energy Security

For native Yup’ik, Aleut, and Athabascan people who lived near Bristol Bay long before Russian explorers landed in early 19th century, life was based on salmon. That remains true for current residents, too. Today, the Bay supports the world’s largest remaining run of wild sockeye salmon, and all five types of Pacific salmon are harvested from the watershed. Dillingham’s population of about 2500 people doubles during the summer salmon season, and fishing provides food and income for many of them. It’s even the main course in the diet of many sled dogs.

But since the mid-1900s, the town’s lifeblood has been petroleum. Without diesel, the modern salmon fleet couldn’t get out of the dock. Diesel powers Dillingham’s electrical generation system. In winter, it heats homes and offices. Gasoline fuels boats used for subsistence fishing and hunting; it also fuels snow machines (or snowmobiles, as they’re known in the Lower 48).

Because of their reliance on diesel, residents of Dillingham find their lifestyle and their economy increasingly at risk. In recent years, the price approached $6 a gallon, and last week it was selling just below $5.50. But cost is only part of the problem. Uncertain supplies are another: Because there are no roads to Dillingham or villages upriver, the fuel is delivered in bulk, twice a year by barge. In times of drought or flooding, deliveries become unreliable.

A similar problem confronts many Alaskans, whether in urban or remote rural areas. According to a July 2008 report from the Institute for Social and Economic Research and the University of Alaska-Anchorage, median home energy costs had nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008. [See “Research Matters” #36.]

“We need a stable energy source,” says Arctic Division President Todd Radenbaugh, director of the Environmental Science Lab at the Bristol Bay campus. “The villages are totally dependent on diesel, and if there’s bad weather—floods, or droughts—the barge can’t get to some villages. Or fuel has to be flown in, and that adds 20% to the cost. It’s a crisis until they get the diesel in.”

To address concerns about energy costs and supplies, the state of Alaska is exploring a range of dam projects for generating power, but new dams raise concerns about financial and environmental costs. In cities like Dillingham, some leaders are looking for solutions closer to home.

The Nushagak Electric and Telephone Cooperative has formed an energy conservation committee, says Radenbaugh, who sits on the co-op’s board of directors. By carefully managing power production and matching it with demand, Nushtel has been able to reduce diesel use, and it recently won a grant to add a high-efficiency generator to its power plant in Dillingham. For two consecutive years, Radenbaugh said, it has been recognized as one of Alaska’s most efficient utilities.

“If we can save 2% or 1% or even a half-percent… just by making sure the power generated is matching the power demanded, it saves a lot of money,” he said.

“We know the future is getting off of diesel,” Radenbaugh added. “The problem is how to do it without losing our lifestyle and the standard of living that we want. We have a good standard of living, and we don’t want to lose it.”

Campus Efforts Support City’s Innovation

Yup’ik people historically understood the value of energy-efficient design. Winter quarters were built partially underground, to take advantage of the warmer sub-surface soil; insulation was provided by a roof framed of wood or whale rib-bones and covered with earth.

Now the Environmental Science Lab at the Bristol Bay Campus is exploring ideas based on the same sensibility—practicing efficiency and using the energy provided by nature—but with 21st century technology. The lab’s Sustainable Energy Initiative was founded in 2009, and it has emerged as an important resource in the community, generating ideas and demonstration projects and providing classes and support to people throughout southwest Alaska.

After regular sessions of the AAAS Arctic Division meeting had ended, Marsik and his colleague, sustainable energy technician Chet Chambers, led a tour of Dillingham buildings that are creating electricity or heating rooms and water without diesel.

In one of the initiative’s first projects, Marsik, Chambers, and students in a construction trades technology class built a small building based largely on the Passive House standard. It isn’t much bigger than a shed, but it was a test of principles: Heat is supposed to come from sunlight shining through triple-pane windows, and from the lights, a computer, and bodies inside the building.

To contain the heat, the crew built double-frame walls that are 28 inches thick; cellulose insulation made of finely shredded newspaper fills the walls and forms a dense pad beneath the floor and between the ceiling and the pitched roof. A heat-recovery ventilator brings in fresh air from outside and at the same time expels the stale air from inside, and both streams pass through a core where the heat from the air going out is transferred into the cold fresh air coming in.

The effectiveness of the building in retaining heat is measured in its r value—its resistance to heat flow and loss. The walls have a rating of 90 to 95, and the ceiling scores 140, Chambers explained. By comparison, the average house in southwestern Alaska has an r value of about 20.

“We’ve Had to Learn a Lot”

The demonstration project was completed in 2010; soon after, Marsik and Donaldson began construction of their 580-square-foot home on the tundra. The structure is set on a berm well above the moist tundra soil; immediately beneath the house is a dense panel of Styrofoam insulation, and insulation extends out 8 feet from each side of the house, just under the soil. Much of the building material comes from Alaska.

Early progress allowed the couple to get married at the home in November 2010. This summer, they hung bamboo cabinets; now they’re laying down bamboo flooring and moving high-efficiency appliances into place. They’ve even installed a small heater—partly because home insurance policies require it. They expect to move in by Christmas.

The project has drawn from the lessons of the small demonstration building, but like most innovation, it has raised a succession of challenges.

“We don’t have enough plumbers in Dillingham,” Donaldson said. “We don’t have enough electricians. We’ve had to do almost everything ourselves. And so we’ve had to learn how to do it—we’ve had to learn a lot.”

While the advanced building methods and green materials have elevated costs, Marsik takes the long view. “It’s going to be a home that’s here for 100 years or longer,” he said. “It will be here basically forever, and it will pay itself off eventually.”

A Boat, an Anchor, and a Tidal Generator

When summer comes and the fishing crews return, electricity demand rises by 40% or more. For Nushgak Cooperative, that creates a dilemma: The utility needs a plant big enough to generate that electricity, but the extra capacity goes unused in the winter, and customers have to pay for a plant that is partly idle. Now city leaders are thinking about how to improve overall energy efficiency by improving the efficiency of the salmon fleet.

Wind turbines aren’t a perfect solution—winds here tend to die down in summer. But the answer might be right beneath their hulls. The Environmental Science Lab has taken the lead in an ambitious proposal to draw electricity from the tides.

How would it work? According to Radenbaugh, a tidal generator—a “low-flow, in-stream hydrokinetic turbine system”—could become part of a barge that produces the ice needed to store the fresh-caught fish, or perhaps part of a floating fish-processing plant. The craft would operate in Nushagak Bay; as tides flow in from the Bering Sea through Bristol Bay, the water would turn the turbine and generate power.

“There would be no permanent structures in the water to impede fish migration,” he said. “The only thing in the bay is the anchor, and the barge, with the tidal generator.” The University of Alaska Fairbanks and partners hope to test a prototype at the confluence of the Nushagak and Wood Rivers in 2012.

With consumer tastes moving away from canned salmon, the processing industry based in Dillingham is moving toward more fresh or flash-frozen fish. To demonstrate how that evolution could boost the local economy, Radenbaugh points to salmon from Alaska’s Copper River, which fetches premium prices around the world.

“There’s a reason they can charge twice as much—they know how to take care of the fish,” he says. “The key, for quality fish, is chilling. People want fresh fish now, and fresh products require chilling.”

And today chilling requires diesel—until researchers, working with Alaskan political and business leaders, can generate an alternative.

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