To say the Alaska Native village of Shishmaref is remote would be an understatement. The traditional Inupiat village sits on a barrier island about 20 miles below the Arctic Circle and the only way in or out is by boat or plane, which involves an hour-long flight from Nome. There’s only one paved road on the island; the rest of the streets are sand and most people get around on ATVs and dirt bikes, or in the winter, snowmobiles.
Like many communities in the area, the village is trying to tackle issues of erosion, declining sea ice, continued thawing permafrost, powerful winter storms, and even relocation in the face of these climate-related challenges. Shorter winter working seasons are compounded by record demand for tundra travel as the extent of active North Slope oil and gas well activity expands. Gasoline and heating oil are shipped in at a premium, with a year's supply arriving each summer on a barge. A single gallon runs more than $6, and when local supplies run out, there is nothing until a barge returns.
In an effort to tackle some of these challenges, Shishmaref applied for technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy’s Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Alaska Program. Through START, tribal communities in Alaska receive technical assistance developing strategic energy plans to increase climate resiliency and energy security, conducting energy awareness training programs, and pursuing new energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities.
In early November 2015, with assistance from START members, Shishmaref completed a 2.4-kilowatt wind project funded by a DOE Tribal Energy Program grant, as well as energy efficiency upgrades to two community buildings: the clinic and the tannery.
During the initial site visit in September 2013, the START team identified opportunities to weatherize the two buildings and install a wind turbine near the tannery. After collecting wind resource data from the Shishmaref airport weather station, a START member analyzed the potential for wind energy at the site and worked with Alaska Energy Authority wind experts to verify the information. Next, the team enlisted the help of Marsh Creek, an Alaska Native company that provides energy systems and environmental services, to identify appropriate turbines for the Shishmaref climate and obtain the necessary permits and approvals to move the project forward.
- The wind turbine will generate approximately 5,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, saving the village an estimated $3,000 per year in electricity costs—or more than $60,000 over the system’s projected lifespan of 20 to 30 years. Shishmaref anticipates a 13-year rate of return investment on the wind turbine.
- The building retrofits are projected to reduce Shishmaref’s annual energy costs by more than $4,500, resulting in an anticipated payback period of fewer than five years.
Arctic Youth Ambassador Exposes Human Costs of Shishmaref's Climate Crisis
To the people of Shishmaref, climate change is a glaring and immediate reality. Though they voted for relocation in 2001, the decision came with an estimated price tag of about $250 million, which doesn’t begin to factor in the human costs. After all, Shishmaref’s location is deeply intertwined with the community’s traditions, culture, and way of life, as Arctic Youth Ambassador Esau Sinnok explains in an Interior Department blog highlighting his participation in the 21st Conference of Parties.