Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs

Gwitchyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government Counteracts High Energy Costs, Climate Challenges with Building Energy Retrofits

October 7, 2015

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Intro/Background

The Gwitchyaa Zhee Gwich’in (meaning “House on the Flats”) Tribe is located in Fort Yukon, Alaska, roughly 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Formerly the Native Village of Fort Yukon, the Gwitchyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government (GZGTG) was established in 1939 under the Indian Reorganization Act. There are no roads connecting this remote community to the rest of Alaska; the best way to get there is by air or, in the summer months, by barge. GZGTG’s strategic goals include promoting economic and social development and empowering tribal members to be self-sufficient and sustainable. 

Challenge

The Fort Yukon community faces some of the highest energy costs in the nation. A gallon of diesel there can run $6.50 or more. The area also experiences drastic temperature swings (-65°F to 90°F is fairly common). Seeking to reduce its reliance on imported diesel fuel and to lower operating costs, increase quality of life, and serve as a model of self-sufficiency for local youth and surrounding communities, GZGTG applied for and was awarded a $125,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Tribal Energy Program to supplement the tribe’s investment in a quarter-million-dollar energy efficiency and renewable energy project.

Solution

Focused on maximizing the return on these investments, GZGTG employed simple, cost-effective retrofits—performed by local labor with existing skill sets—to the GZGTG office building, which is the largest energy consumer and the building used most by the tribe. The  energy efficiency upgrades included enhancing the efficiency of the building envelope, replacing all tube lighting throughout the building with LED lighting, installing an 18,000-Watt solar photovoltaic (PV) array wired to the tribal council building’s main electrical service, and installing a 3.75-kW PV array with battery backup wired into the tribe’s greenhouse.

The Tribal Energy Program has been able to fund great projects that have allowed people to see that they’re possible off the road system, north of the Arctic Circle, and with all local labor. This community has that start and then others will be able to follow where they’ve led. By doing more renewable energy projects and energy efficiency projects, we’re giving [the tribe] more control over their energy future.

Dave Pelunis-Messier
Rural Energy Coordinator, Tanana Chiefs Conference

Benefits

The tribal government expects to realize a total annual cost savings of nearly $20,000 as a result of the upgrades, including:

  • Adding insulation to the roof of the tribal office to bring it up to an R-90 insulation value
  • Retrofitting the lights, which is expected to save more than $3,000 per year alone and have an expected payback of only three years
  • Installing the18-kW PV array on the office building, which will offset more than $11,000 of the tribal government’s yearly electrical bill.

These measures add up to a 48% overall reduction in diesel fuel consumption compared to 2012 numbers. To date, the electricity generation from the 18-kW solar PV system has offset enough diesel generation from the power plant to avoid 11,589 pounds of CO2 emissions.

Moreover, this project has helped create local jobs and reinforce the tribal ideals of self-sufficiency sustainability. The tribe has taken the opportunity to educate its youth about energy efficiency and renewable energy as well. “One of the great things about the technical and financial assistance provided by the Tribal Energy Program is that the community needs to have skin in the game,” said Dave Pelunis-Messier, Rural Energy Coordinator for the regional tribal nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference, a 42-member tribal consortium that represents tribal interests in Alaska’s interior. It’s not just a grant from the federal government—it’s a hand up, and then you leave [the community], ideally, with all the resources to replicate the project down the road if they so choose.”

Read more about GZGTG’s tribal energy goals and successes on DOE's Tribal Energy Program website.

Get information about tribal energy project technical assistance available to tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and regional and village corporations through the DOE Office of Indian Energy.