Speaking to a packed gym at Kotzebue Middle High School, Obama said it and other communities such as Kodiak Island could cut carbon emissions and improve their budgets by launching new renewable energy projects.
“So people are saving money, and helping the environment,” he said.
The issue of high-cost energy is an acute one in this area of Alaska, where shipping in diesel and gas by barge means residents pay far more to power their homes and run their vehicles than Americans in the lower 48.
Vernon Adams Sr., vice chair of the tribal government council in the small village of Noatak, said the enormous transportation costs made it imperative they figure out new ways to cut fuel costs.
“We’d like all the help we can get to get our fuel in a safe manner and enjoy a little of our spending money, rather than spending it on the high cost of fuel,” Adams said.
Alaskans paid an average price of 18.12 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity in 2013, according to federal data — second only to New York and Hawaii — but in this part of Alaska, residents pay at least 40 cents a kilowatt hour, even after receiving a state subsidy aimed at making energy costs more equitable across Alaska.
The renewable energy funding was one of several initiatives the administration unveiled Wednesday under the umbrella of helping tribal and rural communities cope with climate change and other challenges. White House officials said the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency since 1998, would serve as the federal coordinator for building climate resilience in rural Alaska, and would provide $2 million to support voluntary relocation efforts for vulnerable villages.
The Agriculture Department said Wednesday that it will provide $17.6 million to bolster health operations in more than a dozen communities, as well as $240,000 to improve water and sewage treatment operations in rural Alaska.
White House senior adviser Brian Deese told reporters the administration was committed to protecting tribal members’ way of life.
“Alaskan Natives have been living in this land and with this way of life for thousands of years. These traditions and ways of live are … important to our country, important to the state and they are Americans,” Deese said, adding that officials are working to determine “because of changes in climate, what can we do to make sure that these traditions and way of life are not lost forever.”
Still, several tribal leaders who gathered in Kotzebue, which will be the last stop on President Obama’s three-day tour of Alaska, said they expected more from the federal government given the peril their communities now face.
Kivalina tribal government council President Millie Hawley, whose 400-person town stretches eight miles along a gravel spit, has sought federal funding for both an evacuation road and a complete relocation of the village. She noted that in 2004, the town lost at least 70 feet from the side that borders the Chukchi Sea, and changing weather has made the resources villagers depend on less predictable.
Moving to a major city or different area in Alaska, Hawley said, would devastate the community. “You’re asking us to not be a people anymore,” she said. “The land and the resources of our land make us a people.”
A total relocation of Buckland would cost roughly $100 million; even building the evacuation road would cost roughly $15 million.
Percy Ballot, tribal government council president of Buckland, said of the $2 million funding announcement: “We appreciate that, we really do, but we’re going to need more money than that. … If you could, please, pass the message on.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) noted in an interview that the president has pledged to provide $3 billion to help people in developing countries overseas cope with climate impacts, but rural Alaskans face many of the same challenges..
In some places, “there is no running water, there are no sanitation facilities. That puts you in Third World status,” Murkowski said. “He’s willing to pledge the money for developing countries. But there’s a saying that charity begins at home. We don’t want to forget.”
Still, Kotzebue is also a model for how rural communities can chart a new energy trajectory. In this small town 32 miles north of the Arctic Circle, officials have begun a major effort to cut their use of high-cost diesel by launching wind and solar projects.
The Kotzebue Electric Association has established 19 wind turbine towers, each 250 feet tall, roughly four miles from town. They now provide 20 percent of Kotzebue’s electricity and save it 250,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year. The association also manages wind projects for neighboring communities: Buckland dedicated two 100-kilowatt turbines in August, and Deering will be commissioning a 100-kilowatt turbine in October.
“We are very pleased to see the president’s focus on rural energy solutions,” said Brad Reeve, the association’s general manager. “Accelerating Rural Alaska’s integration of renewable energy sources like wind and solar will increase the sustainability of all Arctic communities.”
The Northwest Arctic Borough, which helps govern not just Kotzebue but also 10 smaller surrounding communities, has also provided a grant to expand solar power in the region and to help run their water and sewer services. The grant has established a 20-KW project in Kotzebue and 10-KW solar projects in nine of the surrounding villages.
Microgrids proliferate in Alaska because its rural communities are so far-flung. Alaska boasts more than 200 of them, according to Navigant Research, more than any other state. But diesel energy remains dominant: Only 70 of the microgrids have renewable power as part of their supply.
“Isolated Alaskan villages provide a perfect template for developing practical, “smart” renewable energy systems than can largely replace dirty, expensive diesel power,” said David Hayes, who helped lead the Interior Department’s Arctic strategy as deputy secretary during Obama’s first term and is now a visiting law professor at Stanford University. “Marshaling U.S. technology to develop lower-cost, replicable, small-scale systems could dramatically improve the quality of life for villagers in Alaska and around the world.”
Before heading to Kotzebue, Obama traveled to Dillingham in southwest Alaska, where he met with fishing operators and spoke of the need to protect the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. Noting that he had barred oil and gas production in the region’s Bristol Bay, he said it “represents not just a critical way of life that has to be preserved, but it also represents one of the most important natural resources that the United States has.”
“And by the way, that fish jerky, outstanding,” he said, prompting laughter. “So I strongly recommend it.”
Steven Mufson contributed to this report.
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