Weatherization in Rural Alaska
Seen the TV show "Ice Road Truckers" on the History Channel? Some of those trucks are carrying material to weatherize homes in a far-off Alaskan Native American village.
January 04, 2011
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
There are five weatherization agencies in Alaska, which, along with 13 tribal housing authorities, provide weatherization services throughout the state. Funding to the housing authorities is provided by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC), which was allocated $200 million by the Alaska state legislature in 2008. In order to spend such a huge amount of funding efficiently and effectively, each tribal housing authority was given the responsibility of performing weatherization in its designated area.
I am the weatherization and energy administrator of the Interior Regional Housing Authority (IRHA), and we are well into our second year of weatherization services. The service area we cover is the interior part of Alaska, which has 42 villages and is about the size of the state of Texas. We work jointly with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal service organization, to weatherize homes in our region.
The most recent community IRHA weatherized is Rampart. This community has a permanent population of about 12 residents; however, the population increases to about 60 people in the summertime. People return to Rampart during the summer months to go fishing, pick berries, and enjoy life in the village.
Rampart is located along the Yukon River—the fifth-largest river in North America—in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains. Temperatures typically reach the high 70°Fs during the summer and may be as low as –50°F in the winter. The snow melts in May and returns in October, which gives residents only a limited amount of time to prepare for the cold winter months.
Transportation options are limited in rural communities such as Rampart. They include (1) flying in a small aircraft; (2) boating on the Yukon River during the summer; or (3) during the summer months, driving your vehicle 150 miles out of Fairbanks on a mostly dirt highway to a point that is 17 miles out of Rampart and taking a four-wheeler (all-terrain vehicle), mud bogging the remaining 17 miles, into Rampart (if you’re tough enough, have the endurance, and don’t get stuck). The winter option is (4) making the 17-mile trip described above on a snow machine.
IRHA weatherized five homes in Rampart during the summer of 2010. All the eligible applicants were elders. People live a traditional lifestyle in the village. They have to survive in a harsh environment and work hard. In March, prior to any weatherization work, two IRHA staff members traveled to Rampart from Fairbanks to do assessments while there was still snow on the ground. We have to perform the assessments well in advance to make sure we have plenty of time to order our long-lead items for the projects, since it takes so long to get materials to Alaska. During a random site visit, a cinnamon bear was observed digging near one of the elders’ trash barrels. The elder had to shoot the bear to protect herself. (Note: Elders fish using nets and fish wheels, cut wood for winter heating, and shoot moose to fill their freezers with meat. Being self-sufficient is just a way of life in an Alaska village.)
Following the site assessments, IRHA staff members created work orders and developed budgets. Once the materials were ordered and delivered to IRHA’s storage location in Fairbanks, two loads of materials were flown to Rampart on a caravan airplane from Fairbanks, and one load was barged down the Yukon River from the Yukon River Bridge. The barged materials had to be trucked about 120 miles to the Yukon River Bridge on the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks. (Note: This road has been made famous by the TV show “Ice Road Truckers” on the History Channel.)
Most of the weatherization work focused on replacing and/or repairing the heating systems in the homes and air sealing penetrations in the building envelopes. The heating systems we replace are inefficient wood stoves and oil stoves. We did replace some windows and doors, but that is not our number one priority, although it’s the item most requested by the clients. The priorities for weatherizing in interior Alaska are mandatory air sealing, insulating, and installing efficient heating systems and ventilation. If during the weatherization process some materials were found to be missing, we had to be creative and use what was on hand, if possible. Since there is no local source of materials, the only other option was to have the missing materials sent on the plane that files into Rampart once every two days. After the projects are completed, we use a computer software program called AK Warm to calculate the heating load of the home. We run this program pre- and post-assessment to calculate the energy savings.
When working in the villages, we collaborate with other organizations to provide the best possible service. We were able to leverage HUD funds set aside by the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996, which organized support from several separate programs, for one of the homes we weatherized. This allowed us to go beyond our usual scope of work, and we were able to upgrade the electrical service. We also worked with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to get three elders approved for USDA Home Repair 504 grants. These grants gave them each an additional $7,500 of funding for weatherization to perform electrical work on their homes.
IRHA also received Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds on behalf of the Rampart Tribe from DOE. Using these funds, IRHA worked with the tribe to weatherize the washeteria building, where people shower, wash clothes, and get water for their homes. The washeteria building would freeze a couple of times over the winter months; our staff were able to add circulator pumps and insulate the pipes and the building to prevent freezing.
IRHA hired local people who return to Rampart for the summer for both the weatherization work and the work that was completed on the washeteria. Not only were these people able to fish throughout the summer, they were also able to work on projects that benefited the whole community.
Building Capacity to Weatherize More Homes
Rampart is the sixth small community to which IRHA has offered weatherization services. In total, we’ve weatherized 83 homes as of this writing. We are now focusing on two villages that are a little bit bigger. Grayling, where we plan to weatherize 44 homes, has a population of about 168 people; it is located on the Yukon River. The other village is Northway, with a population of around 88 people. This village is 9 miles off the Alaska Highway and only 42 miles northwest of the Canadian border. We plan to weatherize 30 homes in Northway.
Anything that the IRHA weatherization program can do to help people conserve energy and be more efficient makes a big difference in rural Alaska. Using less wood, oil, and electricity goes a long way in helping the people we serve to live affordably and comfortably, and to sustain their traditional way of life.
Kimberly Carlo is a Gwich’in Athabascan from Fort Yukon, Alaska. She has been working in the weatherization field for more than six years. She joined IRHA two years ago to help start their weatherization program. Now they are well into their second year of providing weatherization services and working with the interior villages on various energy projects.
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