Microgrids are small-scale generation and distribution systems developed to serve the energy needs of remote communities where distance, geography, or weather makes connection to larger electricity grids either technologically or economically impractical. In the United States, microgrids are particularly attractive in Alaska, where harsh weather, expansive distances, and the presence of numerous remote and Indigenous communities can make them a crucial strategy for meeting the energy needs of residents. Historically, microgrids have been powered by expensive, polluting, and carbon-intensive diesel fuels, but technological advancements in recent years have seen an uptick in microgrids powered by wind or solar, both of which are becoming more viable across much of Alaska.
This grant will fund efforts by a team of researchers led by Bindu Panikkar of the University of Vermont and Erin Whitney at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to examine the views, perspectives, and responses of historically underrepresented rural and Indigenous communities in Alaska to renewable microgrid development. Researchers will compare these community responses to renewable energy projects taking place along the more central Railbelt electric grid that spans from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Partnering with Renewable Energy Alaska Project, a local organization with strong ties to Alaska Native communities, the team will survey and engage three rural Indigenous towns (Galena, an Athabaskan community, and Buckland and Shungnak, both Inupiat communities) to understand their relationship to clean microgrid development projects. The team will also develop locally-oriented, quantitative models that simulate how renewable-based microgrids might be best structured to ensure energy resilience, reliability, stability, and cost effectiveness for the communities they serve.