Tanana -- Tiny City in Yukon Takes a Giant Renewable Step

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok.com, the dean of Duke's Nicholas School's blog, and National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge Blog

A city of 300 in Alaska is at the cutting edge of bioenergy.

The Backstory

It's ironic. In resource- and fossil fuel-rich Alaska, Tanana residents are paying more than seven times the national rate for their electricity and are shipping in diesel fuel to heat their buildings and water.

Probably the name Tanana (pronounced TAN-uh-naw) doesn't ring a bell. No wonder: It's not just rural, it's remote. Accessible only by air and river (which is how the diesel arrives), this central Alaskan city is about an hour's flight from Fairbanks and two miles below where the Tanana and Yukon Rivers meet.

A Subsistence Lifestyle

Tanana is helping put woody biomass on the Alaskan map. By harvesting local wood for energy, the city is becoming more efficient and self-sufficient. The plan is to reap wider benefits by sharing their experience with other rural communities. (Image: Alaska Community Database Community Information Summaries)

About 80 percent of Tananans are Native American, 18 percent Caucasian, and there's a smattering of Latinos and others.

"Subsistence is the primary way of life," city manager Bear Ketzler says. "Be it hauling water or getting your own firewood or harvesting berry products and moose and fish and things like this."

Utilizing local natural resources is key in a place where staples like milk (at about $10/gallon) and fresh vegetables (tomatoes
fetch about $7-8 each, a head of lettuce about $6-7) are luxuries.

Dogs probably outnumber people there, says Ketzler, as they are integral to the economy, whether for trapping, breeding or that big Alaskan business: dog-racing.

Tanana, incorporated as a city in 1961 and as a "first class city" in 1980, is co-governed by a city council and a Native council. The median household income is about $30,000 per year with most of the jobs coming from the local government (Tanana school teachers are among the highest paid) and to a lesser extent construction.

Smokehouses are common. There's a school, a senior center, a firehouse, a tribal building, and city offices. There's one B&B, one general store, and 38 traffic lights (in the process of being updated with LEDs).

Tanana's Plan to Take the Chill Off

Tanana gets pretty chilly. Daily minimum temperatures in January go as low as 48 degrees Fahrenheit below. Extremes can hover between -71 and -94 degrees. Brrr. Dealing with that cold requires a lot of heat and, if you're dependent on diesel for that heat, a goodly pile of dollars, not to mention lots of carbon dioxide emissions.

So what to do? Lots, because there is an alternative: wood.

It might surprise you to learn that in addition to vast expanses of tundra, Alaska has huge tracts of forests. An incredible 17 percent of all U.S. forestland [pdf] is in Alaska. And because of river erosion, this alternative fuel literally floats right by Tanana.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

And so Tanana had an idea: Rather than buying expensive diesel from outside the community, why not become more energy independent? How? With biomass.

Through its community planning process, the city chose to focus initial efforts on the "washeteria" -- a laundromat with shower facilities -- because it's among its highest users of fuel.

In 2007 two wood-burning boilers (called Garns, which are essentially wood stoves that sit inside a water tank) were installed to heat the washeteria and two other buildings. According to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks [pdf]:

"By stoking each unit with cordwood just a few times during the day, the system produces enough BTUs to heat the buildings and the 280,000-gallon water storage tank. Heating oil consumption has dropped by 30%, saving the community tens of thousands of dollars a year."

Talk about an economic boon to the community. With local firewood being harvested by local woodcutters, the biomass boilers are spurring job creation and keeping their dollars close to home.

Keeping the Home Fires Burning With Surrounding Biomass

It was too good an idea to stop there. So when the U.S. government requested proposals for the competitive grants it was offering through the Recovery Act, the city applied. And though tiny Tanana went up against much bigger cities, it won $1.5 million in seed money to boost its biomass and other energy-efficient efforts.

Sarah Zaleski, a 32-year-old project officer at the Energy Department's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program and one of Duke's Nicholas School grads, is working on the project. She visited Tanana a few weeks ago to check on its progress. After touring the city and seeing the projects first-hand, she accompanied Patrick Moore, head of construction, to his fishing camp on the Yukon just outside town. There she sampled some smokehouse salmon and crossed the river to Long Island where the next wood harvesting spot is planned.

Zaleski returned to the lower 48 with a greater sense of the challenges and the opportunities: "Tanana is an illustration of how Recovery Act investments are increasing
energy efficiency in communities across the country and saving the
taxpayers money. Innovative energy efficiency projects like this one are
an important step as we move towards a clean energy economy."

In DC, our leaders are arguing over how much of our Alaskan wilderness we should open up for oil and gas extraction. In the meantime, some enterprising folks, with a lot less clout but a lot at stake, have decided to go their own renewable way.