Researchers looking at renewable energy and food security in rural Alaska

Published: Sep. 8, 2019 at 5:11 PM AKDT
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Researchers at the University of Alaska are looking at how renewable energy could power the fish processing industry in Alaska’s remote communities.

The study looks at decreasing the costs of food and energy production, and helping the most isolated communities in the state develop their own renewable sources of energy. The goal is to make these communities more food secure, and less dependent on diesel fuel for electricity.

One case study, conducted by researchers with the Institute of Economic Research and the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, considers one of Alaska’s major fish processors – the City of Cordova. Only accessible by plane or boat, the community must generate and maintain large amounts of energy in order to power its highly profitable seafood processing plants.

Cordova generates 15 percent of its energy from hydroelectric power, according to Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin. This form of energy costs the city $.06 per kilowatt hour, while researchers say diesel fuel usually costs

two times

that amount. Koplin says the city has gone from consuming 2 million gallons of diesel fuel a year -- equivalent to $8 to 10 million -- to as little as 450,000 gallons.

"The lower cost of that energy, and the stable cost of that energy, has allowed our fish processing industry to make investments in their fish processing capacity," Koplin said.

Higher fish processing capacity has fishermen bringing in bigger catches, according to Koplin. In 2018, raw fish tax revenue generated $1.43 million for the city. This shows potential for cost savings and investment returns in hydroelectric energy.

Erin Whitney studies energy production with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. She says the majority of rural Alaskan communities rely on diesel generators to provide


of their electricity. When oil prices rise, or shipments are delayed, they feel the economic strain -- hence the push for a more local approach to energy production.

"They are somewhat vulnerable, because they are not connected to an external electrical grid," Whitney said. "What's really interesting about some of these local options is that they are often more economical than the diesel fuel itself."

Jen Schmidt studies natural resource management and policy for the Institute of Social and Economic Research. As part of her research, she will travel to several communities this winter to gauge the viability of renewable energies. Her goal is to make sure residents see the economic benefits of renewable energies, not just businesses.

“What are those benefits? Are there ways that we can improve renewable energy?” Schmidt said, “and, of course, expand that knowledge out to other communities."

The $2.4 million project is funded through the National Science Foundation. The team has 3.5 years to complete its research into improving food, energy and water security in rural Alaska.

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