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Made In America: Sitka, Alaska

I have a cousin who is a doctor in Sitka, Alaska. For the longest time, the city lived in my imagination as the manifestation of the “last frontier”.  She tells stories of traveling on skiffs to visit local communities and seaplane flights to the outskirts to care for those living in the most remote lands in America. 

Our latest episode of Made in America took the Sitka from my imagination and brought it to life as one of the most fascinating communities in our nation. Like Alaska, Sitka cherishes conservation, a product of being so connected to the great outdoors. The city exudes a unique spirit of sustainability that dwells at the confluence of centuries-old native tradition and innovative technological activity. This has made this region a rare center for clean energy discovery in the U.S. 

When you travel to Sitka – virtually in our Made in America episode – you cannot help but be astounded by the island rainforests and towering mountain peaks. The natural beauty encourages the region’s residents to live in harmony with the environment around them and to discover new ways to protect it for future generations. 

Sustainability has always been a priority for Alaskans. Indigenous peoples throughout the state have long cared for their surrounding ecosystems by responsibly managing the resources around them. These environmentally-conscious practices and lessons have been passed down through the generations by organizations like the Alaska Native Brotherhood, which seek to preserve indigenous culture. The state is following its original residents’ example by investing in the newest innovations in clean energy technology. This spirit is reflected by the 95% of electricity in southeast Alaska that is created through hydro technologies. The problem is that 80% of this power is utilized in larger communities like Ketchikan and Juneau. More isolated villages are still dependent on costly diesel fuel systems; however, Sitka’s clean energy leaders may have found a solution involving hydroelectric energy, heat pumps, and fuel decarbonization.

Here are some of my key takeaways gleaned from Alaska’s sustainable spirit: 

It Pays To Design Scalable Renewable Energy Systems: Alaska’s clean energy transition is an example of how all stakeholders can benefit from energy systems built for future growth. Sitka’s Electric Department aimed to power their city with 100% renewable energy. The area has an extensive history in hydro, dating back to the 1910s, and Sitka is committed to expanding its  capabilities with this energy source. Currently, the city houses two hydroelectric power plants supported by an imposing 220-foot dam. This system was developed to prepare for future energy demands as Sitka grows with a new hospital and coast guard complex scheduled for production. Officials have explained that excess power generation will be the key to success. This term refers to producing extra energy, which is designed to be stored for future use. Sitka exemplifies this concept by utilizing a mere ⅔ of its energy capacity, showing that it built a system that will be ready to handle grid challenges in the coming decades. This excess power can also be an engine to increase revenue through its ability to electrolyze water. This process creates ammonia, a valuable zero-carbon fuel alternative. The price of this commodity reached $1,022.50 per ton in 2021 and is sure to bring an infusion of capital into Southeast Alaska as a new lucrative export. 

Sometimes Dealing With A High Entry Cost Pays Dividends In The Long Run: When transitioning to new technologies, perceived high adoption costs sometimes serve as a barrier to adoption for consumers. This phenomenon holds for many innovative renewable energy systems. But it isn’t always true, and this tech has proven to solve costly challenges and save people money. In Alaska, many struggle with the high cost of heating their homes in the winter. Most municipalities in the state invested in diesel fuel systems that are relatively cheap to build, but damaging to the environment, expensive for the average consumer, and unreliable should winter go long. Alaska’s clean energy leaders are developing the compelling alternative of heat pumps powered by hydroelectric energy. These pumps capture heat from the outside and redistribute it within a building, protecting Alaskans from freezing winter temperatures and conserving energy. There is an upfront cost to the consumer to switch from diesel, as pumps can cost anywhere from $6000-8000 per home. But there are increasing energy efficiency programs and incentives from local, state, and federal governments to help offset this cost. More importantly, these systems have proven to be a valuable long-term investment as officials estimate that an ROI requires only 6-10 years. After that time, Alaskans will save money while reducing their carbon footprint! 
Native Cultures Are Leading The Effort To Build A More Sustainable Future: We can learn much about sustainability from indigenous communities. Many of the best climate solutions arise from innovators who are influenced by or revive and scale native practices. For Alaskans, inspiration can be found close to home through the work of the Tlingit, an indigenous culture that prioritizes sustainability. Chuck Miller, a Tlingit culture bearer, describes this ethos, “We don’t waste anything. We take what we need, and we leave the rest. And, if we take too much, …we share with everybody.” To survive Alaska’s harsh winter, native peoples had to think of innovative ways to work in harmony with the environment rather than exploiting it. Their practices include responsibly managing fish and game stocks while also storing enough dried salmon to sustain their villages in the winter months. The changing climate is disrupting Southeast Alaska’s delicate ecosystem, and the Tlingit have continued to find new ways to adapt. For example, they collaborated with the neighboring Haida culture to create a yearly environmental conference in which 16 tribes worked together to record Alaska-specific climate research. These reports informed the state’s plan to build renewable energy systems These reports informed the state’s plan to build renewable energy systems, and the Tlingit and Haida’s work is a great example of the good that can happen when diverse communities come together to create innovative solutions to difficult problems.


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