Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast presents People Powered, a series that brings you real stories of the folks getting their paychecks in the clean energy sector. There are millions of good-paying jobs in energy, and you’ll get a chance to meet some of the people who have jumped into these fast-growing careers.
Meet AlexAnna Salmon
In a breathtakingly beautiful spot in southwestern Alaska lives one of our nation’s most dedicated renewable energy champions: AlexAnna Salmon. Thanks to her passion for clean energy, she is helping to transform the energy landscape for the Igiugig Village that is home to 71 Yup’ik Eskimo, Aleuts, and Athabascan Indian residents. Listen to the episode to hear AlexAnna tell her story of blending technological advances with the traditional cultural values that have defined her family for generations.
The Power of Community
In 2019, under AlexAnna's stewardship, the village of Igiugig launched a hydrokinetic device that generates electricity from the mighty Kvichak River, fed by nearby Lake Iliamna. The two bodies of water inspired the Yup’ik name for Igiugig — “like a throat that swallows water.”
The 35-kilowatt RivGen Power System — designed and installed with input from the Igiugig community and funded by our Water Power Technologies Office — provides carbon-free, renewable electricity to the village and reduces its dependency on costly diesel fuel. In the episode, AlexAnna talks about the path that led to this pilot project, and her dreams of bringing additional renewable energy and grid improvements to the community in the future, with support from the Department of Energy.
Podcast: Tribal Energy, Powering Self-Determination
For hundreds of Indian tribes and native communities across the United States, energy represents many things... a lifeline, a source of income, a path to sovereignty. No two tribes are alike, which is why the Department of Energy's Office of Indian Energy partners with tribal communities to develop energy projects that fit their specific needs. On this episode of Direct Current from 2019, learn how this small office delivers a big boost to tribes' efforts to take control of their energy destinies.
Work in the Arctic
Looking for fellowships, internships or other opportunities to work in the Arctic? Our Arctic Energy Office has resources for job-seekers, students and more, including programs like the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy (ARENA), which brings together international participants for mentorship and site visits to build energy projects in their own communities. Find more opportunities on the Arctic Energy Resources hub.
"North to the Future of Energy"
We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to clean energy deployment in Alaska and the Arctic as a whole. Join us for ArcticX — an InnovationXLab series exploring the Arctic's largely untapped potential to serve as a living laboratory of clean energy innovation. Co-hosted by the Office of Technology Transitions and the Arctic Energy Office, ArcticX features discussions among Alaska Natives, National Lab researchers, innovators and government leaders — and highlights the resourcefulness and resilience that define the region.
Assisting Alaska Native Communities
The Office of Indian Energy provides Alaska Native villages with resources, technical assistance, skills, and analytical tools needed to develop sustainable energy strategies and implement viable solutions to community energy challenges.
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ALEXANNA SALMON: Our people have lived here for over 8,000 years. And we really value our environment and the relationship with our landscape.
ALEXANNA SALMON: The company came to meet with the community and said, “This your river — how can we make this technology work?”
ALEXANNA SALMON: We have the ability to self-determine our own futures. And your future doesn't have to look like Igiugig. But here's one example that you can draw from and maybe be inspired by.
MATT DOZIER: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Direct Current – An Energy.gov Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Dozier. For this installment of our “People Powered” series, we spoke to someone who’s a remarkable champion of clean energy and climate action in the remote Alaskan village where she grew up. AlexAnna Salmon is the Village Council President of Igiugig, a tiny community about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska. Life in such an isolated place can be difficult, and the village faces an uncertain future compounded by climate and social changes. But AlexAnna is committed to preserving her tribe’s traditional way of life, its reliance on salmon fishing, while balancing modern opportunities like generating its own electricity through a river hydropower project funded by the Department of Energy. Coming up, you’ll hear from AlexAnna about why she chose to return to her homeland after college, how life there has changed since she was little, and her vision for a bright future in Igiugig powered by renewable energy. Stay tuned!
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ALEXANNA SALMON: (SPEAKING YUP'IK LANGUAGE) I'm AlexAnna Salmon and I belong to the village of Igiugig in southwest Alaska.
MATT DOZIER: Tell me, if you could, a little bit about yourself and your background.
ALEXANNA SALMON: I was born and raised in Igiugig, and I went off to school with an intention to return to help my community. We're a close-knit community of about 70 people. And I see a lot of opportunity as well as a high quality of life in Igiugig. So I really love academia, and would like to continue pursuing it. I finished my world development degree last year out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But right now I'm raising six kids out in Igiugig. And it's the prime place to raise a family. But I have many, many interests. My passions are really in cultural revitalization, language preservation. You know, one of the other projects we're working on is building the first nonfuel building, a community cultural center in in Bristol Bay. And so I have a lot of different projects moving forward. Currently, as the President of the Igiugig Village Council, a position I've held since 2008, the movement to alternative energy has taken a lot of the last decade of our time.
MATT DOZIER: Can you describe it, to me, the village, what life is like there?
ALEXANNA SALMON: So Igiugig of my childhood is drastically different than Igiugig of today. But one thing I'm really proud of is our people have lived here for over 8,000 years. And we really value our environment and the relationship with our landscape, and the interconnectedness of working together to achieve what we would like to move our community forward. So we've grown 60 percent between the last two censuses, we have a very diversified local economy, and we are able to balance our subsistence way of life with the wage economy, we have really forward-thinking residents that really want to reduce our carbon footprint and are aware of our changing climate. I just I think our community has a lot of awareness. And then we're really centered on our youth, raising our youth to be the next generation of leaders and creating a community where they will want to remain. But one thing I'm most proud about our community is we've kept our indigenous value system intact in place, and our indigenous planning methods in place. And that has allowed us to move forward with consensus as we take on these new ideas.
MATT DOZIER: What are some of the ways in which things have changed — things you've seen change — in Igiugig?
ALEXANNA SALMON: Growing up, the seasons were very normal and predictable. And I just remember by Halloween, it would always be frozen, and the roads would be iced over and it was cold. And then the lake, you could travel across it when it froze over. And we were a caribou people. We had the Mulchatna caribou herd of thousands and thousands of caribou passing through our village for a week at a time. It was such a part of our life. And then in my lifetime, so the later two decades, the winters started becoming incredibly unpredictable. The fall time rains wouldn't freeze, so then all the ground got saturated. We've had a lot of erosion on our river. If you look at the lake fish camp, it stayed fine for 40 years. And then in the end, it just got wiped out in one of the fall storms. So we started having incredible storms. Our lake stopped freezing over regularly, everything is irregular, we're not sure when it will freeze. And the caribou herd migrated completely north, and now our main source of meat is from moose. So there are some really, really drastic climate and environment changes. Our fish still run really strong, and their size has gotten smaller. Something is making them return home earlier. So we still have an abundance of salmon, which we're really proud of, but they're smaller. The water, though, is still as pristine as when I was two years old. And we still drink it regularly right out of the river, that's really important to us — we've been working hard to protect our water source. And then the other changes are social, we've become a much larger community, but ultimately, the value in our form of governance has remained constant, so we have a level of stability there.
MATT DOZIER: How did you come into this role as village council president?
ALEXANNA SALMON: So, I grew up in Igiugig the only child in my own grade, my whole educational experience when I was when I was in Igiugig. And there was no, like Head Start or any kind of a program, I think I went right into kindergarten eventually. So my entire mornings were spent being babysat by the various elders that live down the street. So I would just go from house to house to house. And it was my favorite, they fed me their soul food. They told me their stories. At that time, I could understand Yup’ik fluently. It was just a very wonderful time of my life. And because of that I developed this relationship where I loved being around elders. And then our elders, by 2001, they started looking at the out-migration of the people from our area and what they were calling the “brain drain.” And our village started comprehensive strategic planning with the very central question of, “What does Igiugig need to be to be a place our young people will want to return to?” And I was in high school then, and I participated without knowing how impactful this would be. So basically, they did this, this planning. And one of the one of the themes that emerged were cultural revitalization, and building our cultural center. So I actually went off to college and studied anthropology and Native American studies, with the intention to return and record our history, write our own history, and then have the center built. When I was in college, I used the anthropological funding sources to go and do all the fieldwork of our elders, talking about our homeland, and actually fly them to our homeland. And then it inspired the thesis, which is the social, political and economic forces of how we settled into a year-round community right here at Igiugig today. And then that, coupled with the Native American Studies degree, opened my eyes to all the colonial forces that were at play, that created such a complex landscape for our people to actually achieve self-determination. And then what happened was, in my senior year, my father, who was the administrator of our village council for 25 years and had spearheaded the whole vision process for all that time, he died in a tragic plane crash. And so I had no choice but to return home immediately after because we were at, like, at a critical point in time. Our community wanted to make the shift to alternative energy. And had they had already secured the first round of funding for renewable energy funding to start us on that path. So they had put together a plan. And to this day, I cannot convey how important that was. I came home and ended up being appointed as the president. And I had an entire plan, and it had 100% community buy-in because it was the community's plan. And so I didn't intend to serve — I was asked to. And my great aunt was the president. She was the one who gave me a graduation card. And in it, she said, “Please come back and help our village. Our people have always been happy to let our youth like go explore the world, but please come back.” And I have saved that card because it was so genuine, you know, the love our elders have for our youth and how they, you know, raised them and give us all these stories and strength and confidence and identity. And, and they're always there for us. And then when she said please come back and help our village I fully intended to and when I came back, we had a meeting and she said she looked at me and she said (SPEAKING YUP’IK LANGUAGUE), with your education, you'll be able to talk to people from the outside. And she said that because Yup’ik was her first language, but she is brilliant. And she was the one who gave me all the values. And she would make sure to stop in my office and tell me why we do things the way we do them. And since then, I've been doing that. But I also went through a period of time where I was also the administrator. And it's just been a very grueling, but rewarding work experience. I've worked for the tribe for 20 years now.
MATT DOZIER: Wow.
ALEXANNA SALMON: And so I've really figured out the processes at a community level and how to move big projects forward. And so I've been trying to share some of that information with other rural communities, every one of our communities are so different, but we do have commonalities enough to be able to learn enough to be able to learn from each other.
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MATT DOZIER: I wanted to ask you about the role that energy plays in life in Igiugig. What does having control over your energy supply mean to the community?
ALEXANNA SALMON: Well, it definitely means self-sufficiency. So that's another social change we've had. In the past when everyone commercial fished, they would bring their boats back and they would have them loaded with these gas tanks, these large 300-gallon drums or 55-gallon drums, and so you'll see yards today littered with some drums from a from that type of lifestyle — kind of everybody on their own. And then when the community moved to a central generator system, then the village needed fuel supply. And at that time, there was always a fall barge that would come up and deliver fuel. And then what has happened with changing environment and economy is unpredictable water levels — we have a very sensitive stretch of river where the water doesn't sometimes raise high enough with the changes we're seeing. So during my time as an administrator, the barge got unpredictable. So you might wait until fall to find out there would be no fall barge and then you would not receive your full year's supply of fuel. It was like such a panic moment, watching the water levels, coordinating with the barges. And then our runway is too small to get large aircraft in, so flying fuel in was prohibitively expensive. So in cases where we're all across Alaska, sharing one fuel airline, there have been cases in the winter where people have run out of fuel waiting for the fuel plane, and then you're chartering in drums that'll fit in small airplanes just to get by. And everything doubles in expenses at that point, maybe triples. And so you just feel very vulnerable, and then you're paying whatever costs at the end because you have no choice at that point. You have no options. It's a situation of like the lights on or the lights out — and lights are not even important. It's really the heat on or the heat off in the dead of winter.
MATT DOZIER: I was going to ask you about the river hydropower project, how that came about, and what that process looked like.
ALEXANNA SALMON: So in, let's see, 2004, there was the study of all these rivers across Alaska and the Kvichak River got highlighted as really an ideal river because of how clear it is the power of the current and then that it's usually debris-free and relatively ice-free. So then, the first round of funding the community got was for were the Renewable Energy Fund for hydrokinetic power. And we found out that the best use of the funding was to permit it so that hydrokinetic companies could come and test their device in our river. And so that's the way the community moved with hydro. So at one point in time, all these device companies came to the community, we had a large gathering, and they got to present their different technologies. And then the Alaska Energy Authority vetted who they were going to fund to try deployment in the Kvichak River. Through that process, ocean renewable power company, tested their device. And we had a really good working relationship and saw the potential for a partnership with that specific company. And after watching their tests, and then developing a plan to move forward, we signed an agreement to solely work with them for hydropower, and let them know that our community is interested in wind and solar and other technologies and that whatever system we put in place — battery energy storage system — and however we integrate it, that it has to be open to other renewables, but that we intend for the RivGen to really carry the baseload of our community.
MATT DOZIER: Talk to me about the value of having that process and getting buy in from the community, having the ability to review the different technologies, to make sure that the river and the salmon would be protected.
ALEXANNA SALMON: So when Ocean Renewable Power Company came to Igiugig, they came to meet with the community and said, “This your river. And how can we make this technology work, using your labor, your equipment, and for you to give us feedback on the engineering of our own device?” It was a very unique approach compared to the other companies who came out to test and didn't involve the community. So the very fact that they used Alaskan companies, that they asked us for recommendations, and that they subcontracted to our own companies and our own people to do the work helped in the larger picture of the buy-in. So we have people on the ground from that side of it, and then on the other, the community, you know, we meet on our projects every month, at monthly meetings. There were a lot of time for feedback, time to really the concern, and then time to reevaluate like after we'd have a field season, we would, I would say, Okay, what I'm hearing from the village is we're concerned about smolt, and we're concerned about ice. And I know that's not what you're concerned about trying to test your technology. But to the community of Igiugig, the fish, absolutely are our priority. So whatever option we select cannot have a negative impact on our fish. So we met in the middle. Our partner understood the community's concerns. And to me, they took on the challenge with the best science. We had a technical advisory committee of barge captains, engineers, half of them from Alaska with real lived experience, and just had these conversations of “How do we make the device better?” All the way to the adaptive management team meetings with all the agencies. And just making these decisions together and listening to the needs of to the needs of the entire team. So just keeping open lines of communication. And it has worked, it has worked really well.
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MATT DOZIER: Do you do see Igiugig as a leader, as an example for other communities, other tribes to follow?
ALEXANNA SALMON: We accepted a lot of this funding with the intention to be a model community to model how communities can navigate this transition to clean energy. And we've taken that responsibility very seriously. Any opportunity that there has been to present either within the United States or even in Canada with the Inuit communities. We have taken it upon ourselves to communicate the messages of self-determination, that we have the ability to self-determine our own futures. And your future doesn't have to look like Igiugig. But here's one example that you can draw from and maybe be inspired by. And then ultimately, the power — I’m not speaking of electric power — but the power rests in the community, and having a relationship with the company to the point where if I wanted to go shut off RivGen right now, I know exactly where to go down to the shore station and push the off button because our community is uncomfortable. Putting those types of checks and balances into your relationship are essential to community buy-in and the whole vision of self-determination. So we have been trying to do this as an example that people can draw from, and also learn from our mistakes, or learn from our challenges, and how we've overcome those and never gave up. There are so many times where we could have been like, “Oh, this is too hard.” Because diesel is easy, and it's predictable. And you know how much it's going to cost, and you budget for it accordingly. But this world of renewable energy, I think also gives an opportunity to really provide an example of how indigenous communities were always preparing, and to really show our true colors of resiliency. And so that's one aspect of our project that I've really enjoyed.
MATT DOZIER: For you, and for Igiugig, what, what does the future hold? What is at the forefront of your mind — and I want to focus more specifically to energy — but what are you looking forward to in the coming years?
ALEXANNA SALMON: I'm really looking forward to going “diesels off,” which is much harder for smaller microgrids than I understood going into this. I would like to see wind energy and well, actually, just renewable energies all integrated. We're at the point now where we're integrating with the diesels, which is the moment we've all been waiting for, because it's got the greatest challenges. And then the community that's making decisions moving forward to be all, you know, fossil-free buildings, and electric heat — being able to move away from even diesel heating. And then our community prospering because of that, with an affordable cost of living out here, our people being employed with these renewable energy options. When it comes to renewable energy, and the fact that all of our communities are moving forward with some aspect of that, recognizing we need workforce, or capacity development. So what's exciting to me for Bristol Bay at least is that there is Bristol Bay School District, Lake and Pen School District, Southwest School District and Billingham City schools in an area the size of Ohio, the state of Ohio, all four have banded together a few years ago and created a career tech program. That career tech program is connecting our students with these types of vocational or college-type credit classes. We have a girl, a senior right now, who has been certified to operate the vessels needed for the RivGen project, who is going to college to become an engineer. She's taking college level classes through that program here locally, and when she graduates she will be practically at a sophomore level, by the time she leaves, which is a cost savings to, you know, a lot of our people face a financial barrier to attending secondary education. I am just so excited about the technologies and expertise working with these companies has brought to our community and given our children, like, the thought that anything is possible. Like, you can dream big dreams. And it can become realistic. And at the same time, they have been so culturally grounded and have been able to balance their subsistence way of life with all that we're doing. I'm just ecstatic for what the future holds with our young people and their ability to problem solve, and especially continue reducing our carbon footprint, and inspiring hopefully the globe, in that if it can be done here in our little community that is so geographically challenging to get to that it can be done anywhere.
MATT DOZIER: Absolutely. Well, AlexAnna, it's been a real pleasure talking to you. I thank you so much for your time and for sharing your story, it's really fascinating.
ALEXANNA SALMON: You're welcome.
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MATT DOZIER: That’s all for this episode of Direct Current. We’ll have more about AlexAnna, Igiugig, and the Department of Energy’s work with other remote Alaskan communities in our show notes at energy.gov/podcast. Thank you so much to my guest, AlexAnna Salmon, for sharing her inspiring story. Thanks as well to Victoria Vinall and Sarah Harman for lending their voices to this episode. Subscribe to Direct Current on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, to hear more episodes in our People Powered series. Direct Current is produced by me, Matt Dozier. Sarah Harman creates original artwork for all of our episodes. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. Thanks for listening!
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