Four Ways Alaskans Are Moving Beyond Fossil Fuels

By Erica Watson, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Mary Sweeters, Greenpeace

October 26, 2017

While our leaders want to continue our dependence on oil and gas on and offshore of the Arctic, Alaskan communities are taking steps to move beyond fossil fuels to ensure an economically and environmentally sustainable future.

Alaska’s economy has long been shaped by out of state interests looking to exploit its natural resources. Whether for furs, gold, oil, or a wilderness adventure, Alaska’s resources have often been developed without much regard for sustainability. Since the discovery and development of fossil fuels on the North Slope in recent decades, the economy has relied heavily on this single industry, despite known market fluctuations, the risk to the local environment, and the role of burning fossil fuels in climate change. Given Alaska’s history of colonization, this means that communities who are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are often the least economically equipped to respond, such as rebuilding infrastructure damaged by permafrost thaw, rebounding from severe storms, or relocating an entire village due to coastal erosion.

The increasingly severe impacts of climate change on Alaska’s landscape and the risk to local wildlife — from offshore oil spills to onshore disruptions of migratory behavior in species like the porcupine caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — spell trouble for Arctic communities that rely on a healthy environment. Combined with the volatility of oil prices, it is increasingly clear to many across the social and political spectrum: Alaska must aggressively pursue economically and environmentally sustainable options.

While many of Alaska’s leaders and the Trump administration continue to put all their eggs in the oil industry basket, ignoring the economic and environmental havoc they will wreak on the region, especially the Arctic, many Alaskan communities are moving ahead, implementing a diversity of solutions themselves.

In partnership with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Greenpeace commissioned a report, authored by the Center for Sustainable Economy, called “Beyond Fossil Fuels: Planning a just transition for Alaska’s economy.”

From that report, we highlight here four ways Alaska’s transition beyond fossil fuels toward a sustainable economy has already started:

Expanding the use of renewable energy microgrids in remote communities

Alaska is already a global leader on the integration of renewables into “islanded microgrids”, localized electricity grids that either have the option to or always do operate autonomously of the larger electrical grid. In remote villages in Alaska, autonomous power is critical and continues to rely mostly on diesel generators. However, wind installations in places such as Kotzebue in the northwest, 60 miles above the Arctic Circle, have shown clean energy to be a worthwhile investment. In 2014, the town saved $900,000 and 250,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
And in the southwest village of Igiugig, efforts continue to obtain funding for the next development phase of a hydrokinetic (river power) installation has shown significant potential to help reduce high energy costs and open up new opportunities for development. Expanded investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects like these are critical components of a just transition.
Alaskans are inspiring others who see the potential in creating small, local power grids. Recently, NPR reported that, “In Puerto Rico, especially, advocates say [local microgrids] could help key institutions like hospitals and military bases keep the lights on when the larger grid goes down. They might want to look north — far north — for guidance.”

Growing the market for local, fresh produce above the Arctic Circle

Based in Kotzebue, Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation’s Arctic Greens is perhaps the most visible of several efforts to sustainably grow fresh greens in the Arctic. Using hydroponic growing techniques and shipping containers to grow greens year round, these farms reduce the need to ship food from outside cities, which is resource-intensive and very costly for residents. Growing produce locally reduces the cost of barges and fuel, lowers emissions, and improves freshness by cutting travel time, and growers are exploring renewable energy sources to power their efforts. Elsewhere in the state, young people are inspired by the agriculture efforts they see in places like Kotzebue and the inland Arctic village of Anaktuvuk Pass; youth in the town of Healy, home of the Usibelli Coal Mine, have proposed building a renewable-powered container garden and rec center.

Thoughtfully developing tourism to create jobs and connection to local culture and environment

Tourism that is thoughtfully developed and promotes greater understanding and appreciation for both a local culture and landscape has great potential in Alaska, and Icy Strait Point is an example of this. Located in the Native Tlingit village of Hoonah, 35 miles west of Juneau, Icy Strait is a tourist access point to wildlife and adventure. This area features tours and a theatrical production that offer visitors a look at Huna Tlingit culture. Visitors are shown the importance of salmon and subsistence fishing in the Tlingit culture and culinary instruction lets local residents demonstrate how to prepare the fish. Icy Strait Point is Alaska Native owned-and-operated and all revenue goes directly to support the local community.

An artisan co-operative that spans the state and brings revenue to rural communities

Around the world, artisan collectives create local economies while celebrating local craftwork and culture, often in rural and remote areas, and Alaska is no different. One notable example is Oomingmak Musk Ox Producer’s Co-Operative. Started in 1969, the co-operative is located in Anchorage but represents artists from throughout Alaska, including in many remote Arctic villages. Qiviut, the underwool of the unique and shaggy musk ox, is collected each spring as it is shed from animals at the Musk Ox Farm in the town of Palmer and from animals in other locations. It is then processed into yarn, which is sent to knitters around the state who are members and owners of the co-operative. The knitters make as many pieces as they like, featuring traditional designs from various regions of Alaska, and send them to the Anchorage shop, which sells the pieces and gives the knitter a percentage of the sale. Revenue from the sales and an annual dividend help supplement the income for many knitters and their families, who contend with low employment and a high cost of living in their remote villages.

These are just some examples of how Alaskan communities are developing more sustainable, diverse economies that, if supported by the state and federal government on a larger scale, could combine with other solutions such as the dismantling, rehabilitation, and restoration of fossil fuel infrastructure sites to promote a just transition in the state. “Beyond Fossil Fuels” demonstrates that, rather than continue to promote the expansion of Arctic oil and gas, our leaders should look to some of the examples set by Alaskan communities and move beyond fossil fuels.

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