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A man of utility

Alumnus weaves renewable energy into the cultural tapestry of rural Alaska

Fall/Winter 2014 | By Meghan Lepisto

Brian Hirsch first visited Alaska in 1987, working for a summer in the Tongass National Forest.

“It was really the classic story of someone coming to Alaska for a week or a summer and saying, wow, this is a place I never want to leave,” Hirsch recalls. “I was just taken by the astounding natural resources and the issues associated around economies, communities and remoteness. I wanted to remain involved.”

Brian Hirsch
Brian Hirsch

Fast-forward five years to 1991 and Hirsch was back in Alaska, this time as a Nelson Institute graduate student studying indigenous land rights, forestry and energy. His interest in indigenous rights was ignited during a research position with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission – an opportunity coordinated by UW-Madison law professor Richard Monette. Hirsch studied water quality concerns in association with tribes throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, specifically examining fish consumption in tribal diets and how toxins such as mercury travel up the food chain.

“That was one of my first connections with tribal environmental issues; I got exposed to a whole new perspective,” he says. “I parlayed that into research on Alaska tribal issues for my master’s and then ultimately my doctoral dissertation.” Hirsch earned his master’s degree in Land Resources in 1996, with a certificate in Energy Analysis and Policy, and his doctorate in 1998.

When Hirsch graduated from the Nelson Institute, he had already established a network of contacts in Alaska and, while still a Ph.D. student, had launched his own consulting business, primarily for tribes, focused on renewable energy and community development initiatives. He now lives in Homer and works in Anchorage, serving as the senior project leader for the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory office in Alaska.

OUT IN THE COLD

Alaska’s energy landscape presents an odd dichotomy. The state’s remote location and volatile climate make for some of the nation’s highest energy prices, but it also holds an abundance of renewable energy resources.

While people in the lower 48 states typically pay eight or 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity, some Alaskans in remote villages pay 80 cents to a dollar. A gallon of gas or diesel fuel can cost eight to 12 dollars.

“In rural Alaska, some people
spend 40 to 50 percent of their
disposable income just to keep
the lights on and stay warm in
the winter.”

“Over time, energy prices have skyrocketed and remote, rural communities, which are almost interchangeable with tribes in Alaska, have really borne the brunt of the consequences,” Hirsch says. “In rural Alaska, some people spend 40 to 50 percent of their disposable income just to keep the lights on and stay warm in the winter. Sometimes people have to make decisions between staying warm or feeding their family.”

Most of these rural communities must rely on small, inefficient energy systems, primarily powered by diesel generators. And a lack of roads or easy access to communities means fuel is typically delivered by boat – only possible during the few summer months when the waters are ice-free – or by plane.

“What happens is people buy a year’s worth of fuel at one time, generally in the summer, and that’s often the highest-price time of the year,” Hirsch explains. Compounding the problem, a community may lack the funds or storage facilities to buy that much fuel at one time, or weather can interfere.

A calamity in 2011 in the small city of Nome, Alaska, illustrated these challenges. Already running short on fuel after a storm prevented the community’s pre-winter delivery, an emergency shipment was required in December. But with the Bering Sea now frozen, a Coast Guard icebreaker had to clear a path for a Russian fuel tanker over an 11-day journey. Delivery by flight would have been even more challenging and costly.

CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS

To provide more stable and affordable energy, Hirsch is working to integrate renewable power into Alaskan economies and infrastructures, often as the boots on the ground for the National Renewable Energy Lab (see sidebar, below).

He’s encouraged by the growing momentum he’s seen throughout his career. Alaska has established a state renewable energy fund, investing between $20 and $50 million annually in projects, and an emerging energy technology fund for which Hirsch serves as the statewide chair of the governor’s advisory committee.

But rural Alaska is a tapestry of complex community dynamics and cultural issues, including the decision-making structures of tribal governments and differences in how land and businesses are owned and operated.

Alaska landscape and wind turbines
Alaska's remote location and volatile climate make for
high energy prices, but it also holds an abundance
of renewable energy resources. Credit: Jim Greenhill

“Each situation has its unique circumstances,” says Hirsch. “While applying conventional technologies may require some modifications in a remote location, you can generally understand those with maps and data. With the cultural and community issues, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”

In the lower 48 states, tribal laws and jurisdictions make it a bit easier for native nations to manage their land and environments. But tribes don’t typically own land in Alaska, Hirsch explains. Instead, native corporations, rather than tribal governments, control land that has been conveyed through settlements between the U.S. government and indigenous people.

“It’s much more of a fractured system,” he says. Take, for example, the scenario of installing a wind turbine. “You may have a tribe that applies for a grant and gets money, but in order for them to put up a wind turbine, they have to work with their native corporation to get access to land. And it may be a different entity that controls the electric utilities in the village.”

Cultural factors also play a role. Hirsch points to a tribal village with abundant wind resources that was also adjacent to a migratory path for caribou – the community’s hunting grounds. In that case, the project was a nonstarter; residents were concerned that wind turbines would scare away the game animals.

“For native people in Alaska, typically 30 to 80 percent of their food is derived from their own hunting, gathering and fishing,” Hirsch explains. As with energy prices, food prices in Alaska’s remote villages are exceedingly high. A gallon of milk can cost as much as $15. “There are energy as well as food security issues. The goal is to have clean energy support access to local food – you don’t want to create a situation of trading one thing for another.”

HUMBLING WORK

Hirsch feels his work with tribal communities, beginning with his graduate studies, aids him in taking a broad approach to the challenges he encounters.

“It's easy to come up with
a technology that may work
in the lab, but having something
that really benefits people in a positive
way is a much bigger challenge and is
much more fulfilling when it happens.”

“Harkening back to the multidisciplinary approach at the Nelson Institute, I say all the time that we need to deal with the whole picture. That includes the communities and the people, not just the technology,” he says.

Seeing people get by in incredibly challenging circumstances has been equally valuable for Hirsch.

“People have been very generous and open, and have taught me a lot about cultures and traditions in rural Alaska – things I would have never been exposed to were it not for the kind of work I do, the places I end up and the good graces of the people who share these things with me,” he says.

He says small victories – for example, cutting a family’s electricity bill from $400 per month to $150 – drive him in his work.

“It’s a lot about giving back,” he says. “It’s easy to come up with a technology that may work in the lab, but having something that really benefits people in a positive way is a much bigger challenge and is much more fulfilling when it happens.”

Integrating renewable energy

As senior project leader in Alaska for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Hirsch works to bring hybrid energy systems to the largest state in the nation. Initiatives he’s been involved in include:

Alaska’s first utility-scale wind farm 

wind wood and plug icons

This unique project involved laying several miles of underwater submarine cable to bring wind power from the small, uninhabited Fire Island to the mainland of Anchorage. The island’s 17-megawatt wind farm, developed by a native corporation, now partially powers Alaska’s largest city.

Hirsch and other NREL colleagues provided technical assistance in evaluating the variable wind power and integrating it into Anchorage’s electric grid in the most energy efficient and cost-effective way possible.

Using wood energy to displace diesel fuel 

In coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard, Hirsch helped study how much wood energy could be used to displace diesel fuel in meeting the heating demands of Kodiak Island. The largest Coast Guard base in the world, it burns more than a million gallons of heating fuel each year.

The team looked at the logistics of getting wood pellets or chips in and out of the base, and the possibility of developing an in-state wood pellet industry. Their findings will extend beyond Kodiak Island, as diesel fuel is used for heating through much of Alaska.

“There’s always a focus on renewable energy used to produce electricity, but we also have very substantial heating needs,” Hirsch says.

Remote Community Renewable Energy Partnership

This high-profile project, funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior, has an ambitious goal: to displace up to 75 percent of the diesel fuel used for electricity and heating needs with renewable resources in Alaska’s remote villages and other circumpolar artic countries like Canada, Russia and Sweden.

A team is currently in the research and analysis phase, studying communities with a range of wind, water, solar and biomass resources, with a pilot demonstration project to follow.



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