Obama’s Alaska Investments Highlight Northern Energy Issues

Sunset over a Lake

By Jonny Wakefield

September 10, 2015

On a trip to Alaska last week, U.S. president Barack Obama unveiled a suite of renewable energy policies that may help northern residents cope with a changing climate and sky-high utility bills.

At a community meeting in rural Kotzebue, Obama outlined a multimillion-dollar plan to speed the adoption of renewable energy in the diesel-dependent region.

On the trip, he announced plans to increase the share of renewable power on Alaska’s 200 “microgrids”—self-contained electricity networks that usually power a town or village. Only 70 of those grids currently include some kind of renewable energy. 

“Isolated Alaskan villages provide a perfect template for developing practical, ‘smart’ renewable energy systems that can largely replace dirty, expensive diesel power,” David Hayes, former chief operating officer of the Department of the Interior, told the Washington Post. “Marshalling 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.”

It remains to be seen whether Obama’s northern climate change plan will influence Canada. A lengthy news release on the visit outlines nearly a dozen federal initiatives. They include appointing a national coordinator for “building climate resilience in Alaska,” launching a service program to “assist vulnerable communities that lack the capacity to address climate-resilience planning,” and creating a new northern renewable energy authority dubbed Clean Energy Solutions for Remote Communities (CESRC).

But ultimately, the largest climate hurdle for both Alaska and northern Canada is reliance on diesel fuel.

Canada’s North is a patchwork when it comes to renewable energy, with Nunavut far and away the most dependent on fossil fuels. With no electricity grid to speak of, nearly 99.94 per cent of the territory’s electricity comes from burning diesel, according to a CBC report. The Yukon, on the other hand, gets nearly all of its power from renewable sources like hydroelectricity. The territory hopes that a new liquefied natural gas plant in Whitehorse will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing two aging diesel generators.

Like their Alaskan counterparts, residents of the territories have some of the highest fuel costs in the country. According to the National Energy Board (NEB), per capita electricity use in the North is double the national average.

The NEB report notes that the low population and high costs complicate a pan-northern plan to shift to renewable energy, but notes “small projects, evaluated on a site-by-site basis are continuing to be implemented and assessed.”