Federal energy grants help lighten Alaska nonprofits’ load

Alaska Heat Smart Executive Director Andy Romanoff, right, looks on as three Alaska Plumbing and Heating employees (from left) Cody Galletes, Sonny Ashby and Robby Brian, install an energy-efficient heat pump onto its stand at a home on the side of a home in Juneau. (Courtesy Michael Penn/Earthjustice)

A new program will help Alaska nonprofits with their heating and electricity bills, so the groups can focus their budgets on providing services to disadvantaged people.

One of those nonprofits, Fairbanks Neighborhood Housing Services, helps low- and middle-income clients with rent and utility costs. But their heat and power bills are making that increasingly difficult according to Nadine Winters, the organization’s executive director.

Tony Reames with the Energy Department’s Office of State and Community Energy Programs joins local participants in the federal Nonprofit Retrofits for Health and Housing program during a tour of a facility that Fairbanks Neighborhood Housing Services works with to provide housing qualifying residents in the city. (From U.S. Department of Energy)

“Between 2019 to the end of 2022, utility costs went up 38 percent. Now that’s heat, that’s electric,” Winters said in an interview Tuesday.

But Winters says a new federal program offering free energy-efficiency upgrades to nonprofits will help the organization help others.

“An energy retrofit or some energy savings is going to relieve that pressure to making ends meet, and make us more efficient,” she said.

Neighborhood Housing Services is one of a couple dozen Alaska nonprofits that are under consideration for the grants from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Renew America’s Nonprofits program. Vanessa Stevens with the Fairbanks office of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, is overseeing the Alaska program, along with two nonprofit groups.

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Vanessa Stevens, project manager for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Nonprofit Retrofits for Health and Housing program. (From NREL)

“It’s just really trying to help nonprofits in Alaska reduce their energy use,” Stevens said, “and then hopefully direct that money toward services.”

The $4 million Alaska program, called Nonprofit Retrofits for Health and Housing, or NORTHH, is one of nine the Energy Department created to coordinate the $45 million Renew America’s Nonprofits program in different parts of the country. The Energy Department calls it “a first-of-its-kind investment in the nonprofit sector.”

The funding comes from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Stevens says organizations like Neighborhood Housing Services can’t afford to spend much on energy efficiency, because they’re trying to deliver services to help people in need.

“Often, nonprofits are really focused on their mission, so they have less time and resources to work on the energy side,” she said. “So, hopefully, that’s where this program can help out.”

Nonprofits typically run on a shoestring and energy is usually their second-highest expense, after personnel costs. A Fairbanks-based company called Information Insights is helping coordinate the grant program in Alaska. And CEO Jamie Hansen says organizations like Neighborhood Housing Services shouldn’t have to bear the cost of energy upgrades like those that will be offered through the NREL grant program.

“The last thing that we want is for a nonprofit to have to take money from their services to do an energy-efficiency retrofit,” Hansen said.

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The $4 million Nonprofit Retrofits for Health and Housing program in Alaska is one of nine nonprofit organizations the Energy Department created to coordinate the nationwide $45 million Renew America’s Nonprofits program. (From U.S. Department of Energy)

Andy Romanoff, who heads a Juneau-based nonprofit that’s helping coordinate the program, agrees.

“That’s often the problem with these sorts of efficiency-weatherization-rebate programs,” he said. “They tend to reach those who have the ability to make them happen.”

Romanoff is CEO of Alaska HeatSmart, an organization that’s dedicated to reducing the high cost of living in Alaska and increasing the use of energy-efficient technologies. Those include heat pumps, a system provides heat in households from air drawn from outside.

Romanoff said in a recent interview that heat pumps can provide heat at much lower cost than conventional home-heating systems that use fuel oil or natural gas — without generating carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.

Romanoff says heat pumps works well in Juneau and throughout Southeast Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. But he acknowledges the technology hasn’t progressed enough to work efficiently in colder parts of the state, such as Fairbanks.

“Down here along the coast, heat pumps are amazing,” he said. “They work so well in these warmer maritime climates that get down to just below zero, for the most part. And of course, up north — well, it gets a little colder than that.”

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The Alaska office of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is located in the Cold Climate Housing Research Center near the University of Alaska’s West Ridge. (From NREL)

But Romanoff says his organization provides technical expertise and other kinds of assistance for the NREL grant program that will reduce energy bills. He says it’s important to offer those services though the program to people who need them, but often can’t afford them.

“So, we want to be able to reach nonprofits (that) don’t have the ability to make this happen,” he said.

Romanoff says the $4 million in federal grants that’ll be awarded in Alaska should be enough to retrofit up to 25 buildings statewide. But he emphasizes the need is much greater.

“That’s just scratching the surface,” he said, “but the fact that we have the ability to scratch the surface at all is just phenomenal, and we’re super excited about it.”

Stevens says the Renew America’s Nonprofits program is projected to reduce Alaska nonprofit grant recipient’s heating and electricity costs by nearly 40 percent and their greenhouse-gas emissions by 35 percent.

She says the retrofits also will improve indoor air quality, to promote better health for those who live and work in those spaces.

Organizers hope to ramp up the three-year program beginning this summer.

Editor’s note: To find out more about the NORTHH program, contact Lisa Baraff, an associate at Information Insights, at info@iialaska.com or (907) 450-1868.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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