Giving Staying Power to Solar Power

In 2022, First Nations launched the Green Jobs in Indian Country Project, awarding 10 grants averaging $100,000 each to eligible Native organizations developing a workforce to address the increasing effects of climate change across Indian Country.

Students learned about the power of solar energy using solar suitcases provided by the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP).

Kawerak, Inc. in Nome, Alaska―a valued First Nations partner in the green energy movement―is a tribally owned and operated nonprofit consortium representing 20 communities in the Bering Strait region. The region is home to three distinct groups of Native Alaskans: the Inupiaq, Yup’ik, and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik people.

In line with its mission to provide social, educational, economic, and other services to Native people in the region, Kawerak is undertaking two strategic approaches: creating future job opportunities for its youth by teaching them about renewable energy initiatives; and advancing its agricultural operation at Pilgrim Hot Springs to address food insecurity in some remote Alaskan villages.

Kawerak co-owns and manages Pilgrim Hot Springs, a historic 320-acre property often called “an Arctic oasis.”

With support provided in part through a First Nations grant, Kawerak hired Arlo Hannigan as the sustainability coordinator for Pilgrim Hot Springs―a historic 320-acre property it co-owns and manages. Hannigan is wearing many hats, some of which are coordinating solar power workshops, conferences, and events in partnership with local tribes and schools to help build regional sustainability; passing down solar knowledge to young people; and encouraging students to pursue long-term careers in renewable energy.

The overall goal is to ensure a greener future by educating the environmental gatekeepers of tomorrow. And Hannigan believes that connecting renewable energy education to the local school districts is an important step to a greener Alaska. “Adaptability and resilience are key components to sustainability and stewardship. In the case of these workshops, we go beyond materials and building practices. We want sustainable education, and long-lasting partnerships with educators and youth.”

Why solar energy is so important to the region

The Bering Strait region is in Northwest Alaska, south of the Arctic Circle. All 20 communities within that area are extremely remote and often only reachable by small aircraft or boat. Residents use mainly diesel fuel to generate electricity, and unfortunately, the cost of diesel is very high due to the nature of transporting this precious resource via large barges into these remote areas.

In addition to the exorbitant cost of fuel, climate change is producing stronger and more frequent storms that threaten fuel delivery and storage infrastructure, and the possibility of environmental disaster has become much more of a threat.

Teachers from the Renewable Energy Alaska Project demonstrated for Native Alaskans students how strong solar energy can be when the sun reflects off the snow.

In contrast, solar energy is local, renewable, and reliable. In fact, as sunshine becomes more frequent and brighter in late spring, solar energy is at its most productive due to the light reflecting off the plentiful snow in Alaska.

Now, more than ever, solar energy is important for all Bering Strait communities as they strive toward energy independence. An important piece of this work is exposing young people, Alaska’s future, to green energy jobs and opportunities.

Delivering clean energy education to Native Alaskan communities

Anyone who has ever been to Alaska understands the driving force behind preserving the lush, resource-rich land and pristine environment through renewable energy initiatives―and there are several in play in the Bering Strait region.

Through the Kawerak Environmental Program, solar energy workshops were held in three Native Alaskan villages and at the Anvil City Science Academy in Nome to inspire K-12 students to one day pursue careers in renewable energy.

To help educate and inform tribal communities―specifically the youth― about green energy projects in the region, the Kawerak Environmental Program, under Hannigan’s direction, partnered with the Bering Strait School District, Nome Public Schools, and the statewide nonprofit Renewable Energy Alaska Project to host a series of solar energy installation workshops and community events over the last few months, with more events in the works, weather permitting.

The kid-friendly curriculum helped young students get excited about solar energy.

Hundreds of enthusiastic K-12 students attended solar workshops in the villages of Golovin, Elim, and Koyuk, and at the Anvil City Science Academy in Nome. It truly was a community effort, with the Renewable Energy Alaska Project providing the curriculum and the instructors to lead the workshops.

“It was a really positive experience for the students and the partners we collaborated with. The Renewable Energy Alaska Project has expert educators whose goal is to empower Alaskans to make smart energy choices, so they were the perfect partner for this project,” says Hannigan.

While the topic of renewable green energy can be a hefty subject even for adults, the instructors made the solar energy curriculum kid-friendly, tailored to different grade levels.

A young student glues a solar panel to a ladybug and later watched the sun move it around.

The younger students, K-5, colored drawings of ladybugs and beetles, cut them out, and put tiny solar panels on them. When the kids took the colored bugs out into the sun, the solar-paneled bugs started jumping and moving around. “You could see the light bulb going off in their heads like, ‘Wow! The sun is making this happen!’” recalls Hannigan, pleased that the workshop achieved its simple goal of piquing the curiosity of young children about solar energy.

The curriculum for the older students, grades 6-12, was more technical. Groups of students were given solar suitcases―portable solar panels where they plugged in devices to be powered by the sun, like their cell phones.

Best of all, says Hannigan, all workshop materials―including the solar suitcases―were left behind for the schools to  continue using in their classrooms for future workshops or lessons. Hannigan says these donations ensure that all students receive solar power education, regardless of teacher turnover.

Students were also encouraged by the instructors from the Renewable Energy Alaska Project to access online curriculum where they can continue learning about solar power and other renewable energy sources.

Pilgrim Hot Springs and other renewable energy initiatives

Pilgrim Hot Springs is an Alaskan treasure. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 320-acre property in Northwestern Alaska is owned by Unaatuq, LLC, a consortium of seven organizations that includes Kawerak, Inc., which co-manages the property with the Bering Straits Native Corporation. It operates on a foundation of four business pillars: ecotourism, agriculture, clean energy, and culture/history.

Visitors enjoying a warm thermal pool at Pilgrim Hot Springs, one of its most popular attractions.

Considered one of the highest potential geothermal resources in the state, Pilgrim Hot Springs has been called an “arctic oasis” and attracts thousands of visitors every year, mostly from the Bering Strait region, to relax in its thermal pools, walk through its lush tree landscape, camp in tents and cabins, tour the abandoned orphanage, and enjoy its greenhouses, birds, and bustling garden, where a bounty of food is grown for the local community.

Due to geothermal activity, Pilgrim Hot Springs is the ideal place to grow food in Alaska because the ground never freezes. As part of the second approach to addressing increasing effects of climate change across Indian Country, efforts are underway to expand the agricultural operation to help with food security in remote villages that cannot access fresh produce.

Kawerak is expanding the community garden at Pilgrim Hot Springs to help with food insecurity in remote villages.

Most noteworthy is that Kawerak is overseeing the design and installation of a 75kw geothermal power plant at Pilgrim Hot Springs, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy. This power plant will provide reliable electricity and heat to the property and is scheduled to be completed in 2025.

As sustainability coordinator, Hannigan will work closely with colleagues to prepare for the installation of the power plant and to keep the public informed about this vital renewable energy system.

Pilgrim Hot Springs will open to the public again on July 6, and Hannigan and his team are planning a special Opening Day celebration with dancers, drummers, and guest speakers, who will talk about the geothermal power plant and other ongoing green initiatives.

“We are always looking through the lens of sustainability and education in whatever we do,” says Hannigan.

This article was co-written and produced by Arlo Hannigan, sustainability coordinator for Pilgrim Hot Springs.