Food, energy, and water are all necessities. Even without a pandemic, rural Alaska faces high food prices and often limited selection in stores, high energy costs, and interruptions to water service or no running water at all. The systems for producing and distributing food, energy, and water are interrelated but are usually managed separately. All of them are also affected by transportation, government policies, weather conditions, and more. With all of this in mind, what can be done to improve food, energy, and water security in rural Alaska?
Our project, carried out by researchers across the University of Alaska system and partners, considered the food-energy-water systems in several Alaska communities. Some of our findings were recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability. We looked specifically at the ways that renewable energy can contribute to food, energy, and water security. Community leaders and residents as well as operators of local utilities graciously shared their stories and experiences with us. High prices can force families to make tough choices about what they can do without. Frozen food can be lost in a long power outage. Lack of water can increase risks from food-borne disease. These kinds of cross-system effects are often ignored in designing and managing infrastructure in rural communities.
Even within each area, many programs and policies that support rural communities are vulnerable. The State of Alaska’s power cost equalization, or PCE, program is intended to keep rural electrical rates comparable to those in the Railbelt, which benefits from massive government investments in power generation and distribution. Despite its relatively modest cost, many urban politicians suggest cancelling the PCE program. Similarly, the U.S. Post Office provides mail delivery to rural Alaska at the same rates as any other customers and destinations. This policy provides access to many goods that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Whether that policy will remain in place is a crucial question for rural residents.
At the same time, rural Alaska is seeing rapid growth in renewable energy. Wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric facilities are reducing dependence on expensive and hazardous fuels transported from afar. The results include less air pollution, less concern about fuel spills, and excess locally-produced power to be harnessed. Take wind power, for example. At night, when electricity use is lower, wind turbines can still generate electricity. In Kongiganak, that extra electricity is used to heat thermal stoves, which keep homes warm during the day when power use is higher. Lower heating bills mean residents have more money to spend on other things, such as going hunting or fishing, in turn increasing their food security.
By comparing these experiences, and especially by bringing rural residents together to learn from one another, we have identified three ways to help increase food, energy, and water security in rural Alaska.
First, we need to recognize the full benefits of existing policies and programs, such as the PCE program and Post Office parcel rates. The same thinking applies to new policies and programs. Installing renewable energy capacity does more than benefit electricity consumers. It can also be used to improve water and food systems as well as create a cleaner environment.
Second, we need to empower community and regional leaders to address food, energy, and water security together. The current approach of keeping each of these domains in its own silo creates inefficiencies as well as deficiencies. Community leaders need to be able to put knowledge of their communities’ needs to use to decide what will do the most good for the whole community’s overall well-being.
Third, when communities are relocating, such as Newtok’s move to Metarvik, or rebuilding, as in the case of Tuluksak and its water plant, new infrastructure should not simply replicate the old. There are many resources available, through the university and elsewhere, to help design improved systems that fit Alaska’s climate and needs. Done right, these new systems can improve community well-being for the long-term.
If these ideas seem straightforward, that’s good. We have confidence that Alaskans will readily recognize the merits of innovation borne of necessity, as well as the importance of home-grown solutions to Alaska’s conditions and challenges. A great deal can be done by Alaskans working together and investing in Alaskans.
Erin Whitney is the data collection and management program manager at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.