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Dec. 4, 2023

Ask the expert: Helping people in the Arctic Circle with energy insecurity

In the United States, more than 30 million households are energy insecure or can’t meet basic household energy needs, according to a 2023 U.S. Energy Information Administration report. The EIA report identifies households in cold-climate regions as particularly susceptible to energy burdens, as they account for over 30% of all homes facing energy insecurity.

From left- Amanda Quarshie (ISU), Zach Gioppo (MSU), Christiana Kiesling (MSU), Dr. Kristen Cetin (MSU), Patricia Guillante (MSU), Janie Cooper (MSU) pose in front of a sign for the town of Unalakleet in rural Alaska
Kristen Cetin (third from right) with a group that traveled to Unalakleet, Alaska. Courtesy photo

Kristen and Bora Cetin, associate professors in the College of Engineering at Michigan State University have begun a $2.8 million collaborative grant through the National Science Foundation focused on working with local communities to establish culturally appropriate ways to assist energy-burdened homes in Alaska.

What inspired your research in energy insecurity?

One of the reasons we are focusing on rural Alaska for this project is the extreme energy burden in homes in this area. Fuel, propane and electricity are much more expensive in rural Alaska because of the difficulty in transporting these resources to remote communities. Electricity prices are three to five times higher than the U.S. average. Heating fuel is 1.8 times higher than the U.S. average. Native Alaskan populations and the communities they live in are disproportionately burdened with energy costs. Because of this unusually high burden, reductions in energy usage and improvements in energy efficiency can result in substantial savings for rural Alaskan homeowners.

What kinds of tests are used to assess a home’s energy needs?

We have been collaborating with communities to complete energy assessments, mold and allergen testing. We are also installing long-term sensors to monitor indoor air quality and identifying cultural values and opinions regarding energy efficiency and retrofit usage, which are collected through homeowner interviews.

We also have begun climate modeling to predict region-specific weather scenarios. As we compile results, we will provide stakeholders and homeowners with recommendations to reduce energy burden and develop energy efficiency curriculum that will be distributed in the community. We are working toward identifying and quantifying what the housing challenges are in each of these communities, and then using that data to develop solutions that are technically sound and culturally appropriate.

What information are you hoping to learn?

The priority is to gather enough data so we can understand the primary energy efficiency and indoor air quality improvement needs for housing in these communities. We also need to gather enough information to accurately model homes, improve their electric grid reliability and reduce each community’s emissions. We are interested in knowing what retrofits are currently in homes and identify reasons why they currently may not be in use. We aim to take this information and develop, test and implement solutions that are culturally appropriate, acceptable and successful in improving the performance and indoor air quality of homes.

How does incorporating traditional knowledge and practices of the Alaskan region benefit the project?

People are more willing to consider recommended improvements if they know such changes are specific to their needs and culture. Ideally, we want the homeowners and community members we work with to use our findings to reduce their energy burden and improve their quality of life. Generally, the coproduction of knowledge enables those we work with to be more receptive to developed recommendations, especially if it is clear that our top priority is to respect the unique culture and customs of each community.

What has your experience working in Alaska been like?

Traveling to work with these communities has been a great experience. It’s rare in engineering to be able to work so closely with people in the community and to develop solutions directly based on our findings.

The preparation for each trip can be expensive and logistically difficult since the communities we’ve visited are only accessible by boat or small plane. We travel with a lot of equipment. It also can be challenging to conduct assessments in the community since we schedule as many as we can each day. Conducting the assessments and traveling from home to home with our equipment requires a lot of physical work, which can be especially difficult on rainy days traveling without a car. We spend time at night uploading and processing data, checking sensors and testing mold samples.

We are currently planning our next work visit for 2024.

By: Lia Bergin

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