Alaska Business Monthly
August 2011 Issue
Ameresco, Alaska Energy Authority Work Together
Rural areas benefit from energy efficiency programs
By Vanessa Orr
No matter where you live in Alaska, energy efficiency is important. Not only are residents dealing with keeping buildings warm and well-lit during long, dark winters, but the cost of fuel can make a huge difference in a community’s quality of life.
In 2010, two programs – the Village Energy Efficiency Program (VEEP) and Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants (EECBG) – began providing funds to make it possible for communities around the state to determine where energy is being lost and what can be done to improve efficiency. This funding supports energy efficiency and conservation improvements to public buildings and public facilities. Both grants are managed by the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) as directed through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and the U.S. Department of Energy.
“Money is short and expenses are high in small, rural communities, and the expertise for performing these projects may not be available within these communities,” said Sean Skaling, project manager, Energy Efficiency and Conservation Program, AEA. “Insulating a building is not just about putting up insulation and sealing the building with caulk; there is an entire building science that goes behind it to make sure the building has the right amount of air ventilation and movement. Cleaning or installing a boiler could mean bringing someone in from Anchorage, and a ticket from Anchorage to Emmonak costs $800 or more.”
To this end, AEA has hired two service providers to help eligible cities and villages take advantage of the grant programs. These include the Alaska Building Science Network and Ameresco Inc., a leading energy efficiency and renewable energy company. Ameresco was assigned 22 cities under the EECBG program in three regions: Western Alaska, the Interior and the North Slope. They were also assigned 14 communities under the VEEP program, as well as the three Whole Village sites – Emmonak, Alakanuk and Fort Yukon.
“We began our energy audits last fall, and we’ve now finished with all of the village audits and are continuing with the EECBG audits,” explained Michael Bartlett, business development manager, Ameresco. “In most cases, we travel to the site to perform an energy audit, after which we provide a written report that is given to the site and the AEA. Each city and village has different needs, so these are often very fluid reports; we may recommend anything from replacing lighting to commissioning new boilers, to installing new windows or making HVAC upgrades, to improvements to the building envelope itself.
“At any given location, we may recommend between 10 and 30 different ideas,” he added. “Our goal is to work on areas in which the village is most interested and that will provide the best financial return on the grant money.”
How the Process Works
EECBG is a new program that received funding for the first time under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. VEEP, which is funded by the State Energy Program (SEP), is a continuation of a program AEA administered in the past with funds from the Denali Commission. SEP received a lot of extra funds as a result of ARRA, providing more money per site than was available in the past.
“Some larger cities and boroughs, as well as tribal governments, were direct recipients of grants from the federal government,” said Rebecca Garrett, project development specialist, AEA. “Smaller cities were passed through the State Energy Office to distribute, which was done through a formula process with a base amount and then weighted for population.”
City allocations ranged from $10,600 to $227,800, based upon population.
In early spring 2010, all of the eligible communities in Alaska were notified of their potential amounts and asked to fill out applications. Cities had the option of choosing to have the AEA hire a service provider to help manage and implement their projects, or choosing to get an audit first and then manage their own projects. A third option was provided for cities with known efficiency projects to implement at the time of application.
“The applications were very simple and they became the grant documents,” Garrett said. “As an incentive, if cities did not apply for their funds, the extra money would be redistributed to the Option 1 sites, based on the same formula.”
Of the 97 cities that responded, 57 selected to have AEA hire a service provider. “Ameresco was awarded a portion of these sites, which included VEEP sites in the same region as their EECBG sites, which created a great economy of scale,” Garrett said.
Three Whole Village retrofit sites – Emmonak, Alakanuk and Fort Yukon – were also selected because of extensive infrastructure work going on in those communities.
According to Skaling, Ameresco was selected to provide VEEP and EECBG services because it was felt that the company had experience with putting together projects in rural Alaska and understood the challenges that they might face.
“Ameresco had a solid Alaska work force as well as an extended nationwide base to help get these projects implemented quickly while still meeting all of the requirements of the Recovery Act,” he said.
Ameresco, which is headquartered in Framingham, Mass., originally came to Alaska in 2002 on an energy services performance contract with Elmendorf Air Force Base. The company eliminated the base’s central heating and electrical generation plant, connecting it to Anchorage Municipal Light and Power’s grid and installing individual boilers throughout 131 buildings. The company still maintains these boilers today.
By taking on projects at a number of villages and cities within the same region, the company is able to save both time and money.
“Breaking these sites out regionally helps a lot; you may have folks based out of Bethel going to a number of villages, which saves the return trip to Anchorage each time,” Skaling said.
In most cases, Ameresco sends a project manager and engineer to visit each site, where they collect data, take photos and examine all of the area’s public facilities.
“After the village or city and the AEA review our recommendations and agree on the work that they want us to perform, we install whatever components are needed, bring the equipment online, and provide maintenance and operations training to members of the community,” Bartlett said. “In villages, what we’re usually seeing is a general atrophying of equipment. Equipment is suffering from general wear and tear and a lack of maintenance, because it’s difficult to take care of in such remote locations. The people in the villages are doing a great job with what they have. If the equipment is still in reasonable condition, we’ll recommission it after minor repairs. We’re also there to provide education – we meet with the people who will be taking care of the equipment, walk them through the process, and teach them what they need to know to keep it maintained.”
As for the types of repairs being made, “Lighting is always an easy answer,” Garrett said. “There are still a lot of inefficient lamps in rural Alaska. Where heating fuel and electric prices are so high, any project will have a great payback. We are seeing a lot of boiler replacements, programmable thermostats, weather stripping, caulking and insulation projects.”
EECBG projects must be completed no later than Aug. 31, 2012. VEEP has a deadline of March 31, 2012, which adds a new challenge – Ameresco has only one construction season in which to complete the work. According to Bartlett, because construction can’t take place at such remote locations during the winter, installation is just now getting under way. New equipment is expected to be operational around the end of summer.
Once all of the recommendations have come to fruition and the equipment is up and running, communities can expect to see both short- and long-term savings.
“The energy efficiency measures implemented through EECBG and VEEP have a payback period averaging around four to five years,” Garrett said. “Because these are grant funds, these projects will save these communities a lot of money immediately, and they will continue to save on energy and fuel costs for many years to come.”
As programs come online, the AEA will gather energy savings measurements that will be displayed on a public GIS-based website in the future.
“Documenting energy savings is not an exact science – many things change,” Bartlett said. “But based on run-time hours, similar weather conditions and the same occupancy, we will be able to say how much a specific piece of equipment saves, pre- to post-retrofit.”
If these projects are successful, it is hoped similar energy efficiency projects will take place in the future. The AEA is looking into continuing VEEP with a new source of funding, though the EECBG program has not received any new federal funding.