The Ester Republic

the national rag of the people's republic of independent ester

energy issues, Volume 9 number 8, August 2007

Less is More: Energy Efficiency in Alaska

part one of three, by Brian Yanity

Energy efficiency is being able to a given amount of work with less energy. Energy efficiency is important because the total amount of energy currently consumed by humans worldwide averages 16 trillion watts. Over 90% of that energy comes from fossil fuels, and almost two-thirds of it is lost during its conversion into the forms used by humans. In a cold region like Alaska, no discussion of sustainable resources would be complete without mentioning energy efficiency.

The use of any energy sources should be accompanied by a simultaneous effort to improve energy efficiency and conservation. Being able to do more with less is always a goal for responsible energy planners because, as Benjamin Franklin once said, a penny saved is a penny earned. Or, if the proverbial bucket of water is leaking, one can either patch the leaks or find more (or cheaper) water. Increased energy efficiency will make Alaska more “economically competitive” in the mainstream sense of the term. Energy efficiency gains that do not compromise comfort, performance, or productivity can be made in transportation, heating, and electricity use. However, it is important to distinguish between energy efficiency on a physical level and ‘economic efficiency’ as Wall Street defines it. Making human civilization more energy efficient requires a large-scale effort to refit and improve the modern world’s buildings, industrial and commercial processes, lighting, heating, appliances and transportation systems.

Energy conservation is defined as the reduction of end-use energy demand by reducing the service demanded, or cutting back on energy use by “making sacrifices” to accomplish a given task. For example, conservation could include the use of natural daylight from the windows instead of electric lighting, a rural transportation choice between dog sleds and snow machines, or using a handsaw instead of a chainsaw to cut wood.

In energy conservation circles, negawatt power is a term coined supplying additional electrical energy to consumers without increased generation capacity through creation of a ‘market’ for trading increased energy efficiencies. It works by utilizing consumption efficiency to increase available market supply rather than by increasing plant generation capacity. While not as glamorous as new energy sources, implementing conservation and efficiency measures to reduce a specified amount of energy used is usually cheaper than building an equivalent amount of new energy production capacity.

With a greater return on investment than most new energy sources, energy efficiency is often the simplest way to start solving serious energy problems. However, energy efficiency efforts alone cannot preclude the exhaustion of fossil fuels in the long run. The energy supply chain basically consists of three main components: primary energy conversion - energy carrier - useful energy form. Efficiency improvements can be made anywhere along this energy supply chain, although most energy users only have control at the end-use part of the chain.

Due to the cold, dark winters, Alaskans consume more energy per capita than any other state in the union. The US Department of Energy (DOE) estimated the total Alaskan per capita energy use in 2003 at 1175 million British Thermal Units (mBTU) per year. (One BTU unit represents the energy required to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.) It should be noted that North Slope oil production, which is very energy intensive, is included in this figure. By contrast, the state with the lowest annual per-capita energy consumption rate is Rhode Island (212 mBTU), followed by New York (222 mBTU). Another interesting comparison (also based on DOE statistics for 2003) is the total annual per-capita energy consumption of several other large nations: Japan (176 mBTU), Germany (173 mBTU), and China (35 mBTU). However, these numbers do not take into account each nation’s per-capita pollution emissions or energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product (GDP).

According to the DOE, Alaska consumes 26,400 BTUs of energy per dollar of Gross State Product (GSP). The national average is 10,300 BTU/$ GSP. Comparing a different quantity, the United States is responsible for a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions while Japan’s per-capita emissions of CO2 (9.9 metric tons) are less than half that of the US. Energy efficiency has always had a higher profile in Europe and Japan than in the US. Given that Americans spend over one million dollars on energy every minute (over $16,000 per second), the nation would spend $200 billion less per year on energy if it were as energy efficient as Japan or Sweden.

A recent report by University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) entitled “Effects of Rising Utility Costs on Alaska Households” says that household utility bills in rural Alaska communities are about 50% greater today than they were in the year 2000, mostly due to fuel costs. According to DOE statistics, Alaska has the sixth-highest per-capita consumption of natural gas of the fifty states, though it also has the sixth-lowest per-capita residential electricity use. The relatively high cost of electricity, especially in rural areas, encourages conservation of it. The state with the highest per-capita electricity consumption is Wyoming (26,000 kWh/year), which gets cheap electricity from its abundant coal and uses a lot of all-electric heating and air-conditioning. California uses the least per-capita amount of electricity (6700 kWh/year). The US average is around 12,000 kWh/year. According to the California Energy Commission, since the mid-1970s, per-capita electricity use in the nation’s most populous state has stayed relatively flat while per-capita electricity use grew by more than 50% for the nation as a whole.

After the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, worldwide interest in energy efficiency skyrocketed along with energy prices. France had perhaps the most aggressive fossil-fuel conservation policy of any nation, involving rapid development of nuclear power plants, energy efficiency measures, and even a ban on advertising deemed to “encourage wasteful energy use.” In Japan, there was also a big push for a less energy-intensive economy.

The total amount of energy used in the USA per dollar of gross national product (GNP), as measured in 1982 dollars, dropped from 27,100 BTUs in 1970 to 19,600 BTUs by 1990. Total energy use actually declined in the US during the early 1980s, and by 1985 the USA as a whole was 25% more energy efficient and 32% more oil efficient than it had been in 1973. Japan became 33% more energy efficient and 51% more oil efficient over the same twelve-year period. Starting in 1986, decreasing fuel prices led to a lower domestic interest in energy efficiency, and overall energy use went up again. However, the steady increase in real energy prices since the beginning of the twenty-first century has re-ignited interest in efficiency and conservation.

Heating and Insulation of Buildings

Space heating uses about 40% of the total energy consumed in Alaska, and about 20% of energy consumed in the US as a whole. Together, heating and cooling represent 56% of the energy costs for an average US home. Overall, Alaskans have the greatest home heating needs in the country. According to a recent report by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, the statewide average price for a gallon of heating fuel rose from $3.48 and $3.99 in the one year period between 2005 and 2006, with lower-income households being most affected. The highest fuel prices, found in the most remote communities, are above $7 per gallon.

In Anchorage, the price of natural gas for home heating has increased 91% between 2000 and 2006 according the ISER report mentioned above. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index reports that Anchorage natural gas prices increased 19% during the year 2006. And these trends show no sign of slowing down, as Enstar Natural Gas Co. abruptly raised its residential rates by 30% in January 2007. Similarly, on May 1, 2007 Fairbanks Natural Gas raised its rates by 29%. Fairbanks gas prices have increased 248% since 2002. In the majority of the Alaska Railbelt, natural gas is the predominant fuel for space heating, most water heaters, and many ovens.

An effective way to begin saving energy is to conduct a home energy audit to find the parts of the home that use (or waste) the most energy. Perhaps the easiest conservation measure is turning down the thermostat a few degrees. An alternative would be to use a programmable “setback” thermostat that turns on the heating system only when needed. A home’s heating system should be checked and cleaned annually to ensure efficient performance. Furnace filters should be replaced regularly, and heat vents should be kept clear of clutter and debris.

Insulation keeps buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. It is an essential part of almost every building we inhabit. Adding insulation is usually the easiest way to improve heating efficiency in existing buildings, although heating system upgrades and retrofits are often necessary as well. Even a few hundred dollars spent on proper insulation and sealing air leaks can cut heating costs by up to 30%. According to the DOE, every dollar spent on home weatherization and energy efficiency has a $2.40 return on investment. Every year at least $13 billion of wasted heat energy escapes through the cracks and air leaks of US residential buildings.

For homes, the recommended minimum insulation (either fiberglass or spray-foam) rating is R10 in basements and floors, R12 in walls, and R38 in ceilings and attics. Insulating basements is often essential because concrete doesn’t have much insulation value. Weather-stripping around doors is also important, and storm windows should be installed before the cold half of the year. Highly efficient double- or triple-paned windows filled with low-conductivity gas reduce heat flow by 50% or more. Caulking windows and leaky ducts is also part of the building philosophy of “build tight, insulate right,” which could also be interpreted as “seal the air leaks first, then insulate.” But a building acts as a system, and indoor air quality in a tight building must be preserved by letting it “breathe” with enough ventilation.

Efficiency retrofits of old buildings are important because most buildings have an expected lifetime of 50 to 100 years. During the building boom that accompanied the oil pipeline rush of the 1970s and early 1980s, many Alaska buildings were not designed or constructed properly for a subarctic climate. Such structures were designed merely to minimize construction costs, not energy costs over the building’s lifetime. In response, the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) introduced voluntary building energy efficiency standards in 1991 to cut home energy use by 50% in AHFC-financed homes. A valuable library of Alaska-related energy efficiency literature can be found at AHFC’s Resource Information Center:

Today a northern design course is required for Alaska architects. Studying the construction technology of other cold regions around the world should prove useful in developing new, more energy-efficient building codes for Alaska. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center ( was established in 2000 by the Alaska State Homebuilding Association, a nonprofit trade group. The new CCHRC building was opened in 2006 on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus and features the latest in energy-efficient building technology.

These state-level energy efficiency programs are a good start, but more Alaska research is needed. Nationally, a ‘green building’ rating system known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard has been developed by the US Green Building Council ( The LEED system addresses five major aspects of building design: sustainable building sites, water consumption, energy use and emissions, materials and resource use, and indoor environmental quality. The first LEED-certified building constructed in Alaska was the National Weather Service’s Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, which opened in 2003.

Zero Net-Energy Homes


A zero net-energy house, which is a type of a zero-energy building (ZEB), is one that produces all of the energy it uses onsite, using renewable sources. Such structures have a super-insulated, passive solar design; extremely efficient lighting and ventilation systems; state-of-the-art home appliances; and usually incorporate solar thermal and photovoltaic panels. Overall, a single-family-sized ZEB uses about one-sixth the energy of a typical single-family home. The manufacture of prefabricated zero net-energy homes has already started in Europe, though on a small scale. A step up from zero net-energy designs are “energy-plus” buildings, which by themselves produce more energy than they use. This may be difficult in Alaska, but such a home is technically feasible in northern climates. As described in Richard Seifert’s A Solar Design Manual for Alaska (, one of the first zero net-energy demonstration homes was built in 1974 on the campus of the Technical University of Denmark (above, photo by Richard Seifert), and the similar Saskatchewan Conservation House was constructed in Saskatoon three years later. Although these experiments proved that zero net-energy buildings can be constructed in those northern locations, it remains to be seen whether such a feat is within reach for Alaska. Most of the state has a longer cold season than either Saskatchewan or Denmark.

Part Two of this series will discuss energy efficiency in home electric use, lighting, diesel engines, cogeneration, and recycling, as well as energy efficiency policy. Part Three will discuss energy efficiency in transportation and urban planning.

Energy-efficient building links:

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