Alaska has a love-hate relationship with its energy

Photo/Michael Dinneen/AJOC

Every year Alaskans wait with bated breath for the PFD announcement — their personal share of the state’s oil wealth.

While clean, reliable hydropower provides inexpensive electricity to Southeast, residents of the Interior and Western Alaska struggle to afford $5 per gallon fuel oil. Some pay more for heat than their mortgage every month.

For 10 years, Chris Rose, founder of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or REAP, has tried to level the energy field across the state.

“We have worked very hard to help people understand this is an economic issue,” Rose said.

According to Rose, Alaskans spend more than $5 billion per year on energy, with most of that money leaving the state.

Over the past couple years, REAP has partnered with the state in an effort to make sure Alaska’s future leaders have the basis to tackle their state’s wide-ranging energy challenges.

In 2012, the nonprofit began developing the AK Energy Smart curriculum with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a way to spread the word about the importance of energy awareness through the state’s schools.

REAP took the curriculum on a barnstorming mission to about a dozen communities across the state. Teachers and administrators were invited to workshops to learn how AK Energy Smart principles could be melded into their current lesson plans. Courtney Munson, REAP’s education coordinator, said in all representatives from 39 districts learned about the curriculum in 2012.

Energy curriculums from across the country were studied and bits and pieces that applied to Alaska were added to AK Energy Smart. A popular focus in Lower 48 schools that was omitted is being energy efficient during summer when air conditioners are running, a problem not typically associated with Alaska, Munson noted.

“The first thing we did when we created this curriculum was break out the big concepts; what are the things we want everyone to know?” Munson said.

From there, the lessons such as  “Be an Energy Saver,” geared towards middle school students, needed to be scaled for older and younger kids, she said.

In high schools the focus is on action components, Munson said, with more involved and detailed measures students can take to impact energy use at home or school. Younger students are simply made aware of the broad concepts and “energy pathways” around them, she said.

It’s a way for teachers of the youngest students to weave AK Energy Smart principles into their current lesson plans.

“Some of the lessons are ones the teachers would take as a reading lesson; it’s just the story is about energy. It’s a story about a girl in her house who started discovering things using energy and through the story we teach these concepts,” Munson said. “These are things that younger children can understand; it’s just more visualizing it.”

Feedback from teachers was mostly positive after the first summer. They found AK Energy Smart particularly easy to integrate into the classroom because the lessons were designed around Alaska, she said.

Teachers in rural Alaska could get a few kilowatt meters that cost $30 to $40 and have their students track energy usage of certain appliances and translate that to cost, she said. It doesn’t require complicated or expensive materials.

The impetus for the education work is to share information, an essential part of changing the culture and reducing expensive energy use, Rose said. The sooner the learning can start, the better, he said.

“Talking to kids early on about why energy is important, where their energy comes from is an important thing for our future — to make sure our kids are energy literate,” Rose said. “There’s a tremendous ignorance, sadly, about where energy comes from. A lot of people know very little about how their electricity is produced.”

When Jack Walsh was the superintendent in the Western village of Naknek, he and some of his teachers sat in on an AK Energy Smart workshop. Walsh said he too was impressed with how applicable the curriculum was to his small school with about 180 students from kindergarten through high school in one building.

“Where an elementary class might work with their teacher on turning off lights or learning how they could conserve energy in other ways, what we saw with some of our older students, especially in classes like science, they could do more exploring with some of the options that exist with wind or solar power,” Walsh said.

A staff meeting about the curriculum and how it could be applied directly to the school began to change everyone’s habits, according to Walsh. He said the school’s maintenance director tried to make everyone aware of how much electricity the 90,000 square-foot building was using and costing — nearly $30,000 every month.

“He put the number from the electric bill on a piece of eight-and-a-half by 11 piece of paper and hung it next to every light switch,” he said.

The simple act got others to do simple but often overlooked things — to close open windows and doors and turn off the lights before they left, he said.

Additionally, just beginning to talk about energy in the school broadened the scope of the conversation to bigger topics nearly immediately. Walsh said the local electrical cooperative was investigating the prospect of generating power from geothermal sources at that time. Naknek is powered with diesel-fired generators.

“There were a lot of things going on in the community that were important for us to better understand and unfortunately while (the geothermal) project wasn’t as successful as people had hoped it was important for kids to know that there are so many ways for us to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels because they might be able to save that in ways I never thought of or others had never thought of in the past,” Walsh said.

Now the superintendent at the Craig district in Southeast, Walsh said he plans to implement AK Energy Smart into classrooms there.

Alaska Housing Finance Corp. now has a two-year, $200,000 contract with REAP to continue AK Energy Smart outreach, AHFC Energy Specialist Tim Leach said.

He looks at it as a way to give students a “leg up” on how to make good energy choices in the future, Leach said.

“We really want to make sure that this curriculum, which we see really as an essential element for students here in Alaska, moves forward and gets in the hands of the teachers here in Alaska and allows the students to become energy literate,” he said.

Teachers who aren’t able to attend in summer at workshops in regional hubs can attend via webinars. He said the curriculum can also be downloaded from the AK Energy Smart website.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/21/2016 - 9:10am