Navigating renewable energy options in rural Alaska

Navigating renewable energy options in rural Alaska

On February 24, 2017 an intrepid little group of students from Harvard’s Climate Solutions Living Lab set off for Anchorage, Alaska, a mere 10.5 hours by plane from Boston.

The Climate Solutions Living Lab is a multidisciplinary course, led by the Emmet Clinical Professor of Environmental Law Wendy B. Jacobs, where law, policy, design, business, public health, and engineering students collaborated to develop a feasible plan to generate or obtain emission reduction offsets equivalent to at least 50,000 metric tons of CO2 annually. These offsets could be legitimately and credibly claimed by an unregulated entity, an institution whose emissions are not regulated by law, to offset its own emissions. Teams focused on four different possibilities: energy efficiency in Rhode Island schools, projects designed to benefit Alaska Native communities, agricultural emissions, and innovative renewable energy financing. While each team had its own focus, we all sought to minimize costs, maximize benefits, and design a scalable and adaptable project.

As a member of the “Alaska” team, I was fortunate enough to travel with my colleagues to Anchorage, Alaska for a week in February. When we arrived, we were met with imposing mountains, stunning vistas, and a wealth of knowledge and expertise. During our trip, we had the opportunity to speak with experts who have been working in the state for decades and the chance to grapple with what kind of project might work best considering Alaska’s unique history and rural communities’ needs.

Our week in Alaska gave us a more clear-eyed sense of the inherent complexity of implementing a carbon offset program. During the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference (SWAMC), we learned that the path forward was not always clear. We heard differing opinions—for example, while one person was a staunch supporter of electric heating, another was ardently against it. Both were experts with years of practice in Alaska, so who should we listen to? The diversity of competing opinions forced us to be cautious with our recommendations and acknowledge the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”          

We heard differing opinions—for example, while one person was a staunch supporter of electric heating, another was ardently against it. Both were experts with years of practice in Alaska, so who should we listen to?

We were also able to grasp a better understanding of the bigger picture and acknowledge that renewable energy and energy efficiency is not a panacea for villagers in rural Alaska. Energy poverty is just one challenge facing rural Alaskans. For example, state education funding was a common topic of discussion: the state only provides funding for schools to communities with 10 or more children. The legislature is currently considering raising the minimum to 25 students, which would eliminate dozens of villages from receiving state funding. We learned from people on the ground that once a village stops receiving education funding from the state, it struggles to survive because the school is the anchor of the village. Learning about these funding dynamics both informed us of a political dimension that we were previously unaware of and forced us to be more cognizant of the fact that a perfect energy project will not “save” a town. Indeed, it reinforced that our team and this project was not in the business of “saving” at all, and we took into account the likelihood of a community’s survival when considering whether or not to support a costly investment in that town. Navigating these tensions is made more difficult by the realization that we are looking at Alaska in part because of social and environmental justice concerns for populations that have been historically underserved.

We were also able to grasp a better understanding of the bigger picture and acknowledge that renewable energy and energy efficiency is not a panacea for villagers in rural Alaska. 

Equally important was the ability to go “beyond the report.” Rather than relying on the latest publication from an agency, which may be a few years old, we were able to speak with the representatives in person. We figured out what information was outdated and what information was left out of the report entirely due to state or interagency politics. The many people we met also gave greater depth and understanding to our thought processes around project options. These conversations were important steps forward in crafting a successful project.

All of these fruitful interactions facilitated a deep immersion experience for the group. For days, we were completely occupied with our project. The amount of progress we made in that week would be unheard of in our hyper-fragmented academic lives in Cambridge. We also became much better acquainted with one another as teammates and left with a better sense of one another’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. This was perhaps the most unexpected but wonderful component of the entire semester: the ability to work with and learn from a diverse, multidisciplinary team on a complicated and nuanced project for several months. As we exchanged expertise and forced each other outside of our respective silos, we began to learn the language of one another’s disciplines. Our different perspectives sometimes clashed, and throughout the semester we navigated those conflicts and negotiated tradeoffs within our group. We were each forced to define our values and advocate fiercely for them. These moments and conversations, more so than the specifics of our proposal, are what I will remember long after graduation.

This was perhaps the most unexpected but wonderful component of the entire semester: the ability to work with and learn from a diverse, multidisciplinary team on a complicated and nuanced project for several months.

Our trip to Alaska was an incredibly informative and productive trip, and it was also incredibly fun. From a weekend excursion to the Kenai Peninsula to watching the Northern Lights on our final night, we are extremely grateful to Professor Jacobs, Debra Stump, Jacqueline Calahong, Harvard Law School, and the Harvard Office of Sustainability for making this trip possible. It is not one that we plan to forget any time soon. 

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