The efficiency factor in the energy equation: or how to save hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Author:Stricker, Julie
Position:SPECIAL SECTION: Energy & Power

Lined up like beads on a string along a windy sandpit on the shore of Kotzebue Sound, Deering is an Inupiat community at the mouth of the Inmachuk River. Its 123 residents haul water, but a central power plant provides electricity and hot water for the local washeteria. Like most remote, rural Alaska villages, energy costs are high.

In a community that small, however, even small improvements can pay big dividends. In 2013, the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative (ARUC) oversaw the installation of a new pump and controls on the village's heat recovery system.

Combined with other efficiency efforts, the project saved the washer and water plant about $5,000 monthly in fuel costs, according to John Nichols, manager of ARUC, a program within the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) that was created to manage, operate, and maintain water and sewer systems in rural Alaska. That may not sound like much, but that means about $154 a month in savings for each of the thirty-six households, or about 5 percent of their mean income.

Rural Alaska Priority

Reducing energy costs is a priority in rural Alaska, where some residents pay more than ninety cents per kilowatt hour for electricity and eight to ten dollars for a gallon of diesel fuel, compared with fourteen cents per kilowatt hour and four dollars per gallon in Anchorage.

According to Commonwealth North in 2012, "The poorest Alaskan households spend up to 47 percent of their income on energy, more than five times their urban neighbors."

Some villages are teetering on the brink of sustainability, Nichols says.

"The ANTHC energy program is really about the sustainability of entire communities in rural Alaska," he says. "If we can't bring down the cost of energy in rural villages, it will kill the whole community."

Efficiency is the first step in reducing energy costs, and maintenance is key, says Nichols.

"The number one thing you can do is make sure your boiler system has been maintained regularly, is clean, and is a newer style high-efficiency model," he says. "I really think with a well-maintained or new boiler, you're going to save from 20 to 30 percent in energy costs."

ARUC, which is comprised of twenty-seven villages, estimates energy costs make up 39 percent of village water/ sewer expenses.

According to ANTHC energy audits, northern water/sewer systems have the capacity for 50 percent in energy savings. ARUC is working with villages to lower costs by increasing operational efficiencies. For instance, it installed smaller, more efficient boilers in Sleetmute, Chevak, and St. Michael. It also constructed systems that use waste heat from the power plant to heat water in villages such as Ambler and Shungnak, saving thousands of gallons of fuel oil each year. Similar projects are underway or planned in Savoonga, Russian Mission, Noorvik, and Quinhagak.

Eighteen rural health clinics around Alaska received energy efficiency retrofits as part of ANTHC's Rural Energy Initiative. The retrofits and upgrades, such as LED lights, control systems, programmable thermostats, and circulation pumps to lower energy use, will save nearly $68,000 in operations costs annually.

In a news release, project manager Gavin Dixon notes that most of the upgrades were small and inexpensive but carried immediate...

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