Addressing concerns of rural Alaska


Alaska’s energy plan, choose your energy entree!

Energy costs in rural Alaska have been considered one cause for the recent and drastic population shift out of rural communities in to urban areas. The subject was addressed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski at a field hearing earlier this year, and has been the topic of conversations in the state for years. The state’s highly anticipated energy plan, with an eye on energy relief for rural Alaska, was scheduled for a ‘roll out’ this month.

According to Karsten Rodvik, spokesman for the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA), there are two major efforts underway; first, to develop an Alaska Energy Plan and the second, to distribute grant funding for the development of renewable energy projects across the state.

Earlier this year, AEA in conjunction with the Denali Commission distributed $5 million to alternative energy projects, with $4 million coming from federal funds and the remainder from AEA. Rodvik stated that to develop the plan, the agency spent the spring of this year conducting town hall meetings to gather information about what residents knew about local resources that can be used to reduce energy costs.

Rodvik said that the energy plans will provide options for rural communities to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels. He said the plan is not “the heavy hand of government” telling people what to do, but will present communities with options specific to their location and community for alternative energy development, with an analysis of projected costs and potential savings. He states that the legislature has approved $100 million for renewable energy grants this year and that this dollar amount places Alaska “at or near the top” for state funding of alternative energy projects. The grant process for projects is rigorous.

In a recent interview with the Anchorage Daily News, the head of the Authority, Steve Haagenson said the plan would “help towns focus their requests for state construction money” but that it does not commit the state to any energy expenditures. Because the plan offers a variety of options, the ADN depicts it as a ‘menu’ of options, rather than a comprehensive approach to energy problems.

The state’s long-awaited energy plan seems to mirror activities of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in late October where every workshop offered information on alternative energy options and how they might be implemented in Alaska’s rural communities. The workshops highlighted some projects that were already underway and how they could be successfully adapted to other locations. AFN emphasized that Native communities must move forward and take the initiative with or without government funding to find viable alternative options to meet energy needs.

Rural Subcabinet holding preliminary meetings

The Rural Subcabinet formed by Governor Sarah Palin in response to what many consider a crisis in rural Alaska has reportedly met, but specific information about their activities has been difficult to find. The subcabinet is meeting under the authority of Alaska’s Attorney General Tolis Colberg.

Colberg responded in an e-mail that the subcabinet is made of several members of the governor’s cabinet including Emil Notti of Commerce, Community and Economic Development and Joe Masters of Public Safety, both of whom are Alaska Native.

Colberg said it is “expected that there will probably be an advisory group or groups of non-cabinet members.” Colberg stated that so far the subcabinet has been in preliminary meetings to look at programs that are already in place and discussing how to gather information, what topics should be focused on, how the group will be structured and what support they could rely on.

The group has no fixed meeting time and the date of their next meeting is unknown.

In a prerecorded video message addressing AFN’s October Convention, Governor Palin stated, “As I envision it, the subcabinet will work closely with representatives of rural communities, tribes, corporations, nonprofits and other entities to discuss issues of concern and to design acceptable solutions.”

As of Dec. 8, the AFN had apparently heard nothing about actions or meetings of the subcabinet. AFN, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (newly elected to the U.S. Senate) and Anchorage’s Superintendent of Schools Carol Comeau, had all requested in September that an emergency task force be formed to take immediate measures to address the radical population shift as villagers left home communities for the cities.

By late October, the AFN and the mayor’s office had already voiced strong disappointment at the governor’s response to their concerns about the need for culturally vibrant and healthy rural communities. The mayor and AFN both felt that a subcabinet was a less than adequate response to the immediate crisis.

Rural advisor search still underway

As of print time, the search in Alaska for a new Rural Advisor is still in process. Governor Palin’s spokesperson, Bill McAllister said that interviews are underway for “all” of a large number of people who have expressed interest in the position.

The previous advisor announced her resignation almost two months ago and the position has been vacant for more than six weeks. Former Rural Advisor Rhonda McBride resigned, expressing her concern that the position should be held by an Alaska Native with personal experience of rural issues.

One candidate for the position stated that the emphasis of the interviews seems to be education. The impact of the population shift on schools in small villages was one of the primary concerns raised in a letter to the governor from Begich and Comeau. Over the last few weeks news stories have discussed an informal interview done by the First Alaskans Institute that lists lack of economic opportunities as a driving force in the population shift from villages to urban areas.