Minto is a small Alaska Native village with a population of about 210 located 125 miles northwest of Fairbanks. The community hub is the twelve-thousand-square-foot Lakeview Lodge, where school and senior lunch programs, community meetings, and village council operations are held.
In the summer, temperatures in Minto can reach the nineties, and it is not uncommon to see winter temperatures dive to sixty below zero. Village officials struggled to meet the $75,000 annual fuel and electricity costs for the Lakeview Lodge, which was built more than thirty years ago with little attention to energy efficiency.
It's a problem seen in many other rural Alaska communities, many of which are dealing with outdated facilities built in the 1960s, 70s, and '80s, when fuel prices were a fraction of today's, says Jodi Fondy, program manager for the Denali Commission. Electricity and fuel costs are among the highest in the nation and some village residents say they often have to choose between putting food on the table or turning on the lights. Climate change has resulted in unpredictable snowfall, low river conditions, and other problems.
The greatest energy needs in rural Alaska are "lower cost, greater efficiency, [and] more dependable operations strategies," Fondy says.
A program administered by the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy is helping some Alaska Native communities work through their energy issues and find solutions. The Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) provides technical assistance to help Alaska Native villages reduce their reliance on diesel fuel and reduce energy costs. The program is a "means to an end," says Givey Kochanowski, Alaska program manager for the US DOE Office of Indian Energy, opening the door to new funding sources and community opportunities.
"Energy is a backbone and enabler of the community," Kochanowski says. "Most people see energy as a tool, but it's also economic freedom and gives them choices for economic development."
In some cases, the original electric grid from the 1960s is still in place, Kochanowski says.
"Most electrification in Alaska happened about forty or fifty years ago," he says. "Back then, the grid was designed so that it could handle it if a person needed to burn a light-bulb all day. Now everything is electronic."
Communities whose projects are approved under START get about forty hours of expert help for their specific programs, Kochanowski says. Three rounds of selections have been made, with sixteen Alaska communities benefiting since the program's inception in 2012. The work has ranged from community energy planning to specific projects, such as Minto's Lakeview Lodge upgrades.
Although the Minto village council initially sought funding to build a new community building, they decided with Tanana Chiefs Conference Rural Energy Coordinator David...