Resilient Peoples Place: Energy independence is both a destination and a journey

By Clay Good

Hydropower reigns in the land of long rains. In Southeast Alaska, more than 95% of our electricity is generated by hydro. However, 80% of that power is concentrated within Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka.

While the largest population centers in the region enjoy the benefits of hydroelectricity, the smallest communities and villages continue to struggle with high energy costs as they work to free themselves from the grip of expensive and volatile diesel energy.

That’s why more small Southeast communities are stepping up to the challenge, finding new ways to bring renewable options to town. And as hydropower increases regionally, additional renewable electrical energy creates opportunities for homeowners and communities to enjoy the many benefits clean energy provides.

Hydropowering rural Southeast

Hiding away in their own corner of Prince of Wales Island, Hydaburg is a predominately Haida community working hard to address diesel dependence. With recently completed major renewable energy projects, this community of roughly 400 residents is well on its way to energy independence.

In 2021, the new 5 megawatt Hiilangaay Hydro Project came online, providing 100% clean, renewable, fish-friendly electricity to most communities on Prince of Wales. Over 110,000 gallons of diesel were displaced between January and November 2021 alone. Now, America’s fourth largest island has clean energy to spare.

In March 2020, Hydaburg began displacing thousands of gallons of expensive imported heating oil with low-grade waste wood to heat their school buildings. Photo of the school building with the beautiful new mural by Haida artist Andrew Morrison, (Courtesy Photo / Bethany S Goodrich)

In March 2020, Hydaburg began displacing thousands of gallons of expensive imported heating oil with low-grade waste wood to heat their school buildings. Photo of the school building with the beautiful new mural by Haida artist Andrew Morrison, (Courtesy Photo / Bethany S Goodrich)

Hydaburg is not alone on its journey toward energy independence. In 2020, Kake was nearly 100% diesel dependent. With the addition of the Gunnuk Creek powerhouse, the community is now powered by 50% renewable hydro. Hoonah has 30% renewable energy, with more hydro power in the planning stage. Angoon hopes to secure funding soon for the shovel-ready Thayer Creek hydro project that will provide 100% clean hydro power to this small community on Admiralty Island.

Now, what can we do with all this renewable energy?

Introducing beneficial electrification

Beneficial electrification describes the replacement of formerly fossil fuel-powered systems with electrical systems, thereby reducing customer costs over time, strengthening grid resilience, increasing utility sales, and reducing carbon emissions. Call it a Win-Win-Win for customers, utilities, and the environment!

With 74% of homes in the region heated by expensive diesel oil or propane, the increasing electrical capacity in Southeast presents new opportunities for the beneficial electrification of the heating sector with electricity – specifically with Air Source Heat Pumps.

A new kind of electric heat — air source heat pumps

Anyone who pays the bills knows that electric resistance heat is not cheap. That’s because it takes a lot of electricity to make heat the same way your toaster does. While that may be fine for toast, it’s not an affordable way to heat a home.

But, unlike your toaster, heat pumps don’t make heat with electricity. Instead, ASHPs are sophisticated machines that use a small amount of electricity to absorb and concentrate existing heat from the outside air and move it to inside your home. Much like your refrigerator, but on a larger scale. So how does it work?

Our planet is a heat pump

Remember the water cycle from your school days? The classic diagram depicts water evaporating over the ocean and falling as rain over the land before running back to the ocean in a nice tidy circle.

While this is an accurate and elegant depiction of the natural process of moving water from one place to another through the evaporation and condensation cycle, what the water cycle diagram doesn’t show is the flow of thermal energy (heat) that accompanies the phase change of water.

Air Source Heat Pumps heat housing in Hydaburg with clean electrical energy from the Hiilangaay Hydro dam which came online in 2021. (Courtesy Photo / Clay Good)

Air Source Heat Pumps heat housing in Hydaburg with clean electrical energy from the Hiilangaay Hydro dam which came online in 2021. (Courtesy Photo / Clay Good)

When water evaporates over the hot tropics, it carries with it the heat required to evaporate it. When the water vapor later condenses into a liquid at cooler latitudes, it releases that same heat into the atmosphere.

In this fashion, our Earth is like a heat pump constantly moving heat from where it’s hot to where it’s not. Directed by the laws of physics, our planet distributes the solar heat concentrated in the tropics and spreads it poleward, both south and north by any, and all means available. This is our weather.

Imagine massive billowing clouds rising up in enormous plumes thousands of feet into the sky and twisting into continental-scale vortices with their white vaporous arms spreading thousands of miles across oceans and land. Ultimately, atmospheric rivers of precipitation and thermal energy are released far from where the water evaporated just days before. Fortunately, Southeast Alaska receives an abundance of this bounty of moisture and heat, filling our rivers, reservoirs and moderating our climate.

The laws of physics that move moisture and heat on a planetary scale are the same laws that heat pumps use. Special fluid-filled coils outside the home absorb heat from the air causing the fluid to boil. The evaporated gas then flows through tubes to radiator coils inside the home where it condenses and releases its store of heat into the room.

Why use an air source heat pump in Southeast Alaska?

Even cool air possesses considerable thermal energy. That’s why modern ASHPs work very efficiently in Southeast’s moderate climate. Though it can be very cold for short periods, most winter days in Southeast are in the 30’s to 40’s – an ideal range for ASHP’s.

While there are many good reasons to install an ASHP in a home or business, saving money on heating costs tops the list for most ASHP users. Installing an ASHP allows homeowners to use local hydroelectricity most days of the year instead of expensive imported heating oil.

As ASHPs have become more efficient and popular in recent years, they have also dropped in price. Besides saving money, ASHPs are also safe, clean, reliable and programmable for comfort and efficiency. And heating with an ASHP helps improve home air quality by reducing the amount of oil, propane or wood burned for heat.

Beyond the individual savings, safety or convenience of ASHPs, using local renewable energy also creates a greater sense of community pride and purpose while also strengthening the local economy by decreasing dependency on imported fossil fuels..

Does an ASHP replace my existing heating system?

For homes with existing heating systems, ASHP’s are a practical technology to reduce expensive heating oil consumption over the year. But because ASHP’s do not operate as efficiently at very low temperatures, it is important to have another heat source for the occasional days of winter when temperatures drop below 5 degrees. Keeping the existing heating system in place for the coldest days works well for most Southeast ASHP users. For many Alaskans, a cozy wood stove is also a popular way to keep warm on the coldest days, especially when ASHP’s must work harder to heat your home.

Though you may need to heat with oil or wood occasionally, over the course of a year consumers typically save hundreds of gallons of oil by heating primarily with an ASHP. As the volatile price of oil continues to climb, the financial savings can be impressive.

How much will it cost?

While an ASHP is less expensive than a new furnace, they aren’t cheap. Ballpark costs for a simple ASHP installed in Southeast can easily run $6,000 to $8,000. Sometimes you need to spend money to save money.

Though ASHPs aren’t free and the electricity to operate them isn’t either, the return on investment for an ASHP in Juneau is around 6-10 years, depending on the price of oil, incentive programs used, electricity, and how the customer uses their ASHP. Typically, heating costs are cut in half each year after Southeast homeowners install an ASHP.

Where can I get helpful information, incentives, or assistance?

It’s not always easy for cash strapped homeowners to come up with several thousand dollars so they can get started saving energy and money. Additionally, because ASHP’s are an emerging market in Alaska, not every community will have sale and installation businesses readily available. Plus, it can be complicated to have an ASHP installed due to the need to coordinate various electricians, contractors and ASHP installers.

Fortunately, there are excellent programs in Southeast designed to assist homeowners who are considering making the switch to an ASHP with technical and financial assistance. Below is a list of resources available to Southeast Alaskan homeowners.

Alaska Heat Smart is a Juneau-based non-profit organization providing information and free heat pump assessments to help homeowners understand the type of heat pump that will work best for them, and their anticipated cost savings. They also have information about tax benefits and other incentives on the website.

— Juneau Carbon Offset Fund uses generous financial contributions they receive from visitors and others choosing to offset their carbon footprints, to pay for the installation of ASHPs in oil-heated homes of low-income families.

The Sitka Carbon Offset Fund is a project of the Sitka Conservation Society that uses contributions from travelers and residents who wish to offset community carbon emissions. The fund is used primarily to help low income households convert from fossil fuel based heating systems to heat pumps that run on Sitka’s renewable, fish-safe hydroelectricity.

Thermalize Juneau is a partnership program between the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, Alaska HeatSmart, Renewable Juneau and Alaska Electric Light and Power to assist homeowners to find and finance installation of heat pumps in Juneau. You can sign up for their waitlist on the AK Heat Smart website.

— Tlingit & Haida Regional Housing Authority installs heat pumps in all their new and retrofit housing projects throughout the region, including 200 ASHPs in 13 communities across Southeast. They also trained 40 ASHP installers and work with a combination of their own installers and other contractors for their projects.

Alaska Power and Telephone (AP&T) and Sealaska Incentive Programs: AP&T offers a $500 to any customer on Prince of Wales, Skagway, Haines and Gustavus looking to install a heat pump. Sealaska is matching that incentive for shareholders who are upgrading from a fossil fuel dependent system with an additional $500. This program will continue through 2022. AP&T also hosts a suite of resources and information about ASHPs on their website relevant for everyone in Southeast.

— Inside Passage Electric Cooperative offers a special rate for their heat pump customers. IPEC customers can apply for the special ASHP rate in the documents section of its website.

— Alaska Housing Finance Corporation offers several supporting programs and loan options.

Renovation Loan offers financing to make renovations and energy improvements to owner-occupied properties. Older homes in need can especially benefit from renovation and energy upgrades by increasing the home’s value as well as its energy efficiency and operational costs.

The Energy Efficiency Interest Rate Reduction program catalyzes interest rate savings when financing new or existing energy efficient homes or when borrowers make energy improvements to an existing home. Any property that can be energy rated, and otherwise eligible for Alaska Housing financing, may qualify for this program.

The Weatherization program supports individuals and families who meet low-income requirements to weatherize their homes. People can apply through the weatherization service provider in their area. Homeowners and renters may apply. The weatherization provider will provide program services at no cost to qualified applicants.

Pulling it all together: Meet Sitka’s latest heat pump owner

Eve Grutter is a single mother and entrepreneur. While raising a 4 year old son, Grutter simultaneously grows a soap business, Evening Star Art Soaps and Salves [] where she uses her own goat’s milk in combination with essential oils and botanicals from the Tongass. This month, she had an ASHP installed in her basement where she works while her son plays.

Eve Grutter is a single mother and entrepreneur who received an Air Source Heat Pump to heat her soap studio and son’s play area this month with the help of the Sitka Carbon Offset Fund. This retrofit allows Eve to juggle her business and motherhood more comfortably from home.(Courtesy Photo / Bethany S Goodrich)

Eve Grutter is a single mother and entrepreneur who received an Air Source Heat Pump to heat her soap studio and son’s play area this month with the help of the Sitka Carbon Offset Fund. This retrofit allows Eve to juggle her business and motherhood more comfortably from home.(Courtesy Photo / Bethany S Goodrich)

“I had been soaping in the house, shuffling in the kitchen balancing my business and food prep with a small child. We have a great play area downstairs but it was too chilly for my son. With this new heat pump, I’m now able to heat the soap studio and my kid’s play area, keeping us warm and we don’t have to smell diesel while working here or even playing in the yard. This is huge for us.

I was hoping to get a heat pump but I didn’t know how I was going to do it financially. Sitka Carbon Offset made it possible and then the soap money paid for the remainder!” says Grutter.

The Sitka Carbon Offset Fund, a program of the Sitka Conservation Society, matches carbon-offset contributions made from travelers and residents with low income households wanting to transition from fossil fuel based heating systems to ASHPs. This is just one of many programs available across the Southeast that can help make ASHPs more affordable and accessible.

With the increase of clean, salmon friendly, hydroelectricity coming online across the region, Air Source Heat Pumps are a great option for Southeast Alaskans wanting to heat indoor spaces affordably while advancing local energy independence. Today is a great day to start your journey to energy independence and a more Sustainable Southeast.

• Clay Good is the Regional Energy Catalyst for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and STEM Educator for the Renewable Energy Alaska Project. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.

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