Lightly populated Alaska faces special energy challenges. It’s the northernmost state; one-third of its territory lies within the Arctic Circle. Many residents, including Native Americans, live in isolated villages underserved by electric transmission lines. The cold, dark winters are long. And Alaska already feels the impacts of climate change.

Alaskan communities have banded together to build their energy future. Fifty-six villages, all but one accessible only by boat or plane, belong to the nonprofit Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC). Launched in 1968, AVEC serves Athabascan, Aleut, Inupiat, Yupik, Siberian Yupik, and Caucasian communities. Each member village elects a delegate to AVEC’s annual cooperative meeting.

While the lack of transmission lines has dictated use of diesel generators, AVEC works hard to increase its use of renewable resources. Thirty-four wind turbines now serve 14 AVEC communities.

AVEC mascot Little Picu, a sealskin doll in traditional Alaskan clothing, travels with the utility’s employees wherever they’ll take him, including to the top of the towers that capture the Arctic winds. (AVEC)

“There’s absolutely no doubt that [AVEC customers] would love to see their energy come from other sources than diesel,” says AVEC head Meera Kohler.

Conservation is crucial to Alaska’s energy future. In most villages, AVEC-installed heat recovery systems capture and repurpose heat from those diesel generators. And thanks to conservation awareness and efficiency-education programs, AVEC customers are cutting their energy use.

On the front lines of climate change

Alaskans understand the importance of transitioning to a clean-energy economy because they are on the front lines of climate change. In villages like Shungnak, Shishmaref and Kivalina, rougher storms and erosion have become part of daily life for native Alaskan villagers.

AVEC linemen and technicians are traveling constantly between co-op villages to keep the power supply systems in repair. (AVEC)

“Winters are milder, freeze-up occurs later for shorter durations, resulting in storm damage from fall storms,” says Kohler. “I think our village members are very alarmed.” President Obama travels to Alaska in late August for a close-up look.

Alaska is exploring new energy alternatives through an emerging technology fund that aims to develop cleaner and more efficient technologies. Among its current projects: efforts to harness the power of rivers and to better store power for future use.