Wednesday, February 23, 2011
“December and the Meter’s Spinning Backwards,” Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Energy Coordinator Dan Lesh wrote on the Sustain Angoon blog. He included photographs of the frozen landscape surrounding the demonstration house – the home of Angoon elders Peggy and Kelly Williams – and a video that indeed showed the electric meter rotating counterclockwise.
This is no small feat for a community which has energy costs that can add up to as high as $1,200 a household a month, about 6 to 8 times more expensive than in the Lower 48. Angoon is heavily dependent on non-renewable resources, and combined with a shrinking population and high unemployment, keeping up with the bills can prove to be a challenge.
What sent the wheel of progress spinning forward and the meter backwards? The Sustain Angoon Project, which tackled the problem of energy usage from several angles, involving a combination of weatherization, energy efficiency and renewable energy systems. The efforts of the project have culminated in a film, which will be shown this week at a special screening in Juneau.
The project has combined the collective efforts of several organizations including the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, SEACC, the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority (THRHA), Angoon Business Center, and the Maharishi University of Management of Iowa.
The Williams’ house was fitted out with new insulation and siding, caulking and sealing and duct repair. Improved high-efficiency lighting and Energy Star appliances were installed, monitored by The Energy Detective, or TED 5000, system. Solar panels were put up, including a solar hot water system.
Solar power is not the first thing one might think of when talking about energy in Southeast Alaska, but Lesh said that the system appears to be operational and effective.
“When you’re talking about a place that pays five times as much for energy, it doesn’t matter if you get one sixth of the sun,” he said.
The meter actually does run backwards on sunny days, Lesh said, though of course in the winter there are few hours of daylight, so at least during this time of year the new equipment doesn’t cancel out all energy usage.
There have been a few issues working out all the details of monitoring the solar hot water system, though there is anecdotal evidence from the Williams family who noticed that their boiler doesn’t kick on during sunny days.
They also put up a wind tower and hooked it up to the local school, which charges batteries that can run the washing machines. They have yet to set up a monitoring system for that, but so far it seems to be working.
Lesh said that the problem of high energy bills can’t be solved by just turning the lights out before leaving a room. On average citizens in places like Angoon, served by the Inside Passage Electrical Cooperative, use far less energy than residents of places like Juneau.
“So they turn the lights off, they use everything sparingly, but they may have something that’s on that’s draining power or leaky windows,” he said. “But they are head and shoulders above us [who live in cities] in terms of a lot of types of behavior in terms of energy efficiency.”
Renewable energy systems and weatherization are expensive, and Lesh said it will take time to work out how cost effective their implementations are.
“Not to say that our project should be replicated, but the kinds of discussions we’ve been generating should lead to more action along those lines,” he said. “Energy efficiency is low-hanging fruit that would make big differences in the villages.”
Newer to the project is Carrie Sykes, who started her position as the Business & Economic Development manager at Central Council in October. Sykes said she has worked with the THRHA on a joint application to expand similar ideas being explored in Angoon for other communities in Southeast with high energy costs like Kake and Hoonah.
Another project on the drawing board is a training program for local people in weatherization, which could help cut energy costs and provide jobs.
“When you put in this kind of stuff, you’ll need people who will be familiar in case something goes wrong,” she said.
Teaching and learning are the most important things to take away from the project as it progresses, Sykes said. The documentary will hopefully be a good tool to spark interest, especially with the younger generation.
“You really have to start educating, and start educating young,” she said. “We’re going to be getting the documentary to the schools, science teachers and all the tribes. We want to get it out there about all that can be done.”
Robert Gongwer, co-founder of the Iowa-based socially and environmentally conscious consulting firm Tidal Wave Group, said that there some in Angoon who doubted that the project would get pulled off, who were later “blown away when the electric meter started running backwards.”
“It was a big turning point, when it became real,” he said.
Gongwer co-directed the documentary, working on pre-production in Angoon in September of last year when the project was building up steam, and has recently put the final polish on the film. Coming from the outside, he was nervous about being able to give the best description of what was going on in Angoon. The goal was to be totally honest about the people, the community, and the energy providers.
He and his team wanted to make sure that the community was receptive to the project before getting involved. He was taken aback by the amount of hospitality shown to them by the residents of Angoon, regardless of any reservations they had about the potential of the project.
“We went to the [ANB Hall], and everyone was just so, so happy,” he said.
There is a respect for older people in Angoon, Gongwer said, and they are not only cared for, they are looked to for answers.
“It just really struck me as something that is really broken in the culture I’m from,” he said.
The concerns voiced by the elders of Angoon were first and foremost on Gongwer’s mind while working on the project.
“[An elder] told us her worst fear is to fly over Angoon with her grandchildren and tell them, ‘that’s where we used to live,’” he said.
The Sustain Angoon Project has shown the kinds of things that can be accomplished, Gongwer said, though there is still a lot more exploration to be done. The project isn’t the solution, but rather a demonstration of one take on a larger set of solutions. Maharishi University of Management Professor Lonnie Gamble, who also worked on the project, explained the situation as, “We don’t need a silver bullet, we need silver buckshot.”
“We’ve made some progress, that’s great,” Gongwer said, “but really the issue is how can we sustain progress? We just need to keep after it…maybe this [project] will help to change some laws, change some policies.”
“Sustain Angoon” will be shown at the Silverbow (120 Second Street) back room Thursday, Feb. 24 at 5:30 p.m. There will also be a discussion with members of the project. For more information or to follow new developments of the project, go online at www.sustainangoon.org.
Richard Radford may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgThere are additional photos for viewing at the top right of the article. Go to: Click Thumbnails to View. Click on a photo, then click on it again for a larger view. Here are the descriptions to go with some of those photos: Work on the house got underway in early fall of 2010. During sunny days, the electric meter actually runs backwards now. The community of Angoon came together to work on the energy project. The Williams’ house was fitted out with new insulation and siding, caulking and sealing and duct repair. Improved high-efficiency lighting and Energy Star appliances were installed, monitored by The Energy Detective, or TED 5000, system. Solar panels were put up, including a solar hot water system.
This article was also published in The Washington Examiner
Film looks at energy-saving efforts in Angoon
In this September 2010 photo provided by Tlingit and Haida Central Council, workers with the Sustain Angoon Project talk in the southeast Alaska village of Angoon. The Sustain Angoon Project tackled the problem of energy usage in the village from several angles, involving a combination of weatherization, energy efficiency and renewable energy systems. The efforts of the project have culminated in a film.