With DOE support, workers weatherize the exterior of the Lakeview Lodge in Minto, Alaska. Photo from Russell Snyder, Interior Regional Housing Authority, NREL 31796

The Lakeview Lodge is the heart of Minto, a small Alaska Native village 126 miles northwest of Fairbanks. The 12,000-square-foot building is used daily for school and senior lunch programs, community meetings, and village council operations.

“It is critical to the community,” said Bessie Titus, Administrator for the Minto Village Council, which represents 210 residents.

But the lodge, which has to withstand 150-degree temperature swings, was designed more than three decades ago, with little attention to energy efficiency, and constructed in an era when the price of heating oil was low. Now the Council grapples with yearly fuel and electricity costs exceeding $75,000 for the structure it owns. And Minto is not unique in this energy struggle.

“The remoteness of this region, the lack of infrastructure, the harsh environment, and the increasing impacts of climate change throughout rural Alaska all have profound impacts on energy needs, costs, and accessibility,” said Givey Kochanowski, Alaska Program Manager for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy.

In response to requests from local leaders, the DOE Office of Indian Energy developed several initiatives to advance community energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy infrastructure projects in Alaska. For example, the Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Alaska Program provides technical assistance to help Native villages displace diesel oil and reduce energy costs.

In 2013, villages that applied for and were selected to receive technical assistance through START were also eligible for a DOE Tribal Energy Program grant of up to $250,000 to implement energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. Kochanowski described Alaska START as “a means to an end.”

“It’s very flexible, and tailored to the needs of a community,” he said. This responsiveness includes being mindful of logistical challenges that can delay projects in Alaska due to materials shortages or transportation difficulties.

Although a new lodge was on the Minto Council’s wish list along with other improvements, advisors such as David Pelunis-Messier, rural energy coordinator for the nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference, worked with Minto leaders to apply for START assistance to upgrade the existing building. “Energy efficiency made the most sense,” Pelunis-Messier said.

Minto was one of five Alaska Native entities selected by the DOE Office of Indian Energy and the Denali Commission in May 2013 to receive START technical assistance to not only identify energy efficiency opportunities in the lodge, but also assess the potential for biomass and solar projects.

“What set Minto apart was the leadership’s demonstrated commitment to improving Minto’s energy situation,” said START team member Jared Temanson of DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Strong community engagement is fundamental to energy transformation and critical to the success of START technical assistance.”

Alaska’s Interior Regional Housing Authority also helped Minto to pursue an Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) biomass grant to install a more efficient boiler to heat the lodge and the clinic next door. With START support, a $250,000 DOE grant, a $100,000 Alaska Capital Improvement Project grant, and the AEA grant, Minto was ready to move forward with a phased approach to upgrading the lodge. 

In summer 2014, after the START team helped prioritize improvements, weatherization work began on the lodge’s exterior. Additional improvements will include attic insulation, air sealing, installation of new doors and windows, and repairs to plumbing leaks. Pelunis-Messier said he expects “at least a 30% improvement” in energy efficiency once the project is complete.

“We think this will reduce costs so we have money for other programs, rather than paying for fuel, fuel, and fuel,” said Titus. “Everyone is happy with the project.” DOE Office of Indian Energy Acting Director Pilar Thomas went on an initial site visit to meet Minto tribal leaders and community members in June 2013. Joined by representatives from AEA, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, Marsh Creek LLC, and Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, she was “pleased to have so many key stakeholders participate.” 

“In September 2014 we went back to the village to see the work getting completed,” Thomas said. “Villages are taking control of their energy futures, and we’re glad START is helping.” 

These types of successes are fueling other DOE Office of Indian Energy initiatives. A pilot planned for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 will train and develop regional energy ambassadors to provide front line technical assistance to Alaska Native villages. Read more about the Alaska Energy Ambassadors Program

For more news on actions to accelerate energy development and address climate change in Indian Country, read the full Fall/Winter 2014 issue of the DOE Office of Indian Energy newsletter, Indian Energy Beat.