Tanana residents who harvest wood for a local biomass project are six times more likely to engage in subsistence activities. That’s according to a study from the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Center for Energy and Power.
In the rural town of Tanana, some community spaces are heated by boilers fueled by wood that local residents gather. Before the biomass boilers were installed, heating those same community spaces required expensive imported fuel. Now instead of paying an outside company for fuel, the city pays local residents to collect and harvest abundant wood from the area, process it, and operate the boilers. The boilers are part of a city-led project intended to reduce fuel costs and keep energy production local.
Jennifer Schmidt, of UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, worked with on the paper. The study shows that harvesting biomass dovetails with the existing subsistence lifestyles of those who live in Tanana.
"It seems that you know, when people are out looking for wood now often talked about how they were looking for subsistence foods at the same time, or if you went fishing up river, and you know, weren't successful, you could load your boat full of wood and, you know, float back down to the community. So it does seem to work very nicely with people's lifestyles. It does provide a source of income and jobs for residents."
For the study researchers interviewed with 61 households and analyzed data on subsistence activity from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Amanda Byrd from the ACEP is another author on the paper. She said the biomass program doesn’t net savings on energy for the community, but it does re-invest money into the community.
"When you incorporate keeping those jobs local, and keeping the money circulating in the, in the local community, rather than sending it out to purchase diesel fuel that's imported. It's a big driving factor."
Interviews found that Tanana residents thought the project benefitted their community.
Schmidt said further research will be needed to determine whether harvesting wood encourages subsistence activity or whether subsistence activity is the catalyst for participation in the biomass program, but the link between the two activities is promising for other rural Alaskan communities hoping to reduce reliance on imported energy.
"Energy, you know, is expensive in rural Alaska, and so many communities are turning towards renewable energy options to reduce costs and get off of fossil fuels."