Reducing Fuel Oil Consumption in Rural Arctic Communities


Across the Arctic, many remote communities have an energy-inefficient housing stock and rely on expensive, imported fuel oil for both electricity generation and space heating. Together, these factors create an exceptionally high energy cost burden for households. To reduce dependence on fuel oil, some communities in Alaska have integrated renewable energy (RE) resources into their electrical microgrids. Flexible loads, such as supplementary space heating, can buffer fluctuations in renewable electricity generation and allow utilities to generate more electricity from renewables. When excess renewably generated electricity is available, it can be sold at a discounted rate and used by consumers to charge electric thermal storage heaters (ETSH), thereby reducing heating costs. Energy efficiency must also be considered as it may be most cost-effective to reduce fuel oil consumption through a combination of energy efficiency improvements and RE capacity additions. This research investigates whether displacing fuel oil used for space heating with energy efficiency improvements and renewably generated electricity can substantially reduce households’ energy cost burden, reduce carbon emissions, and increase the RE contribution in isolated microgrids in remote Arctic communities. This research has energy justice implications for the hundreds of Arctic communities currently using fuel oil for space heating and electricity generation. This research may lead to the broader adoption of a cost-effective combination of energy-efficient homes and low-cost, renewably generated electricity for space heating, which could reduce residential sector carbon emissions and household energy cost burden.

The project incorporates dimensions of the natural environment, built environment, and social systems through four components: 1) a residential heating field experiment in Kotzebue, Alaska; 2) energy system modeling; 3) economic and policy analysis; and 4) energy education. The research objectives of the project are: 1) measure the electricity and heating fuel oil consumption in treatment and control homes before and after energy efficiency improvements and ETSH are installed in the treatment homes; 2) extend an existing microgrid simulation software (MiGRIDS) to add building thermal loads and ETSH; 3) use the MiGRIDS model to optimize and value various levels of energy efficiency retrofits, ETSH, electrical energy storage, and RE; 4) develop a process that can be replicated elsewhere to optimize and value various levels of energy efficiency retrofits, ETSH, electrical energy storage, and RE; 5) collaborate with the Tribal government, local energy experts, and community members to design a survey that satisfies both the community needs and research objectives; 6) estimate reductions in energy cost burden, carbon emissions, and air pollutant emissions associated with displaced fuel oil use; 7) identify regulatory, institutional, and/or policy changes required to enable the widespread adoption of renewably generated electricity for space heating in other communities in Alaska and the circumpolar North; 8) identify how existing statewide energy policies can be adapted to be more equitable and effective; 9) collaborate with local K-8 educators and elders to create culturally responsive, place-based curriculum materials for a science unit on energy use in Arctic communities; 10) provide energy efficiency and energy auditing training to local high school students; and 11) teach Arctic Remote Energy Network Academy (ARENA) program participants how to apply the energy system model developed for this project to reduce fuel oil consumption in their own communities.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Principal Investigators

Co-Principal Investigators

Project PI(s)
Project Start Date
Sep 2022
Award Year