During my first year as the Deputy Secretary of Energy, I had the privilege of visiting Alaska at the invitation of Senator Lisa Murkowski. Together we flew over the state, above the magnificent Denali National Park, and met with Alaskans to hear about the energy challenges they face.
Two facts are very clear: one, remote Alaskan communities are already experiencing the alarming effects of climate change – and two, as a result of some of the highest energy costs in the nation, Alaskans are actively seeking ways to increase energy efficiency and reduce costs. Deploying sustainable energy solutions in Alaska is a uniquely powerful solution to these two urgent priorities.
Alaska’s vast geography is one of the reasons that the warming climate is having such tangible effects. For example, because it has a longer coastline than all the other U.S. states combined, Alaskan villages are facing powerful storm surges due to lack of sea ice. The same vast distances that create those consequential climate effects also pose challenges to the implementation of energy solutions that will cut heat-trapping emissions and deliver affordable energy to remote Alaskan communities. Since Alaska is warming at the fastest rate of any state, time is short.
That’s why, as part of President Obama’s commitment to fight climate change and assist remote Alaskan communities with their energy challenges, the Energy Department announced the Remote Alaskan Communities Energy Efficiency (RACEE) Competition in September. RACEE is a $4 million initiative that will significantly accelerate efforts by remote Alaskan communities to adopt sustainable energy strategies.
The Energy Department is now asking eligible Alaskan communities and Native villages to sign a pledge to reduce per capita energy use by 15 percent or more. Communities that pledge to become Community Efficiency Champions will join together in a peer network and will be eligible to apply for technical assistance as they prepare to implement their energy efficiency plans. Communities selected to receive technical assistance will be eligible to compete for up to $3.3 million in total grant funding to implement energy saving measures later in 2016.
These energy efficiency improvements will help Alaskans reduce their energy costs and energy consumption. It’s clear that significant opportunities exist:
- According to the Energy Information Administration, per capita energy expenditures in Alaska are nearly $10,000 annually, versus the United States median of less than $4,500.
- Heating oil, gasoline, and electricity prices are all significantly higher in Alaska than in the continental United States. In July 2015, the unsubsidized cost of heating oil averaged $5.27 per gallon across the state, reaching up to $9 per gallon in some regions, as compared with the current average of only $1.98 per gallon across the United States. Likewise, the average electricity cost is more than $0.50 per kilowatt hour (kWh), reaching as high as $1.50 per kWh in some locales, as compared with the national average electricity cost of $0.13 per kWh.
- Finally, Alaska ranks third in the nation in total energy consumption per capita.
Alaskan rural communities face especially high energy costs because of their remote locations, many of which are only accessible by air or boat. This isolation raises the costs of importing fuel; for the same reason, supplies frequently depend on the weather and seasons. Rural Alaskans also often use diesel electric generation, operating off the grid at significant cost.
The RACEE Competition is designed to empower communities to develop and implement clean energy and energy efficiency solutions that are reliable and affordable. The Energy Department is committed to helping remote Alaskan communities deploy sustainable solutions tailored to the state’s unique energy profile. Climate change effects near the Arctic Circle can be gradual and quiet, like changes in fisheries, but they can also be seismic and sudden, like the calving of a glacier. Given Alaska’s remote and austere conditions, our solutions must be swift, realistic, and ambitious -- reflecting the urgency of these energy challenges and the great importance of the Energy Department’s partnership with Alaska.