Federally funded heat pumps are coming to Prince of Wales Island

Spruce Root announced in May that the organization had received federal funding to install up to 240 air-source heat pumps on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska.

Heat pumps have gained international attention in recent years as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuel-based heaters. And in rural Alaska, where residents don’t have access to cheap natural gas, they can also save people a lot of money.

Spruce Root is a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs in Southeast Alaska, with a focus on rural and Native-owned businesses. Last year, it formed a green bank to direct federal funding to renewable energy initiatives in an effort to address high energy costs. The group has now partnered with Ketchikan-based Alaska Power & Telephone Company (AP&T) to secure heat pump funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, through the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Alana Peterson, the executive director of Spruce Root, said the heat pump project is kicking off their green bank initiative. 

“Heat pumps are really (a) much more energy efficient way to heat a home or a building,” Peterson said.

She said Prince of Wales was an ideal place to pilot this sort of project, thanks to its abundance of hydroelectric power.

Prince of Wales has three hydroelectric facilities, which the utility says often produce more than 100% of the needed power for the island’s roughly 6,000 residents. That means users of these new heat pumps, which run on electricity, will be able to warm their homes with clean energy, as opposed to diesel or other carbon-emitting fuels. 

Peterson said AP&T, which services Prince of Wales and a handful of other areas in Southeast and Interior Alaska, came to them with a plan to seek federal grant money.

“We said, ‘Well, we would be interested in this kind of funding if there was more to it.’ So not just funding the installation, but actually looking at how we do that in a good way,” Peterson said.

That “good way” meant the $2.5 million in funding would include money to build out the heat pump workforce. A shortage of trained installers in Southeast Alaska has created long customer waitlists in recent years.

The details of the workforce program still need to be hammered out, but Peterson said it will likely involve apprenticeships plus supplemental certifications for people who already have similar experience. Heat pump installation involves knowledge of commercial refrigeration, which Peterson said is also an in-demand skill.

“I used to own a coffee shop, and the amount of people in Southeast who know how to do commercial refrigeration work is very small,” Peterson said. “And so that’s also going to add to the capacity within the community to service other things.”

Peterson said Spruce Root also wants to make sure there’s a trained technician nearby in case someone’s heater breaks in the middle of winter. Generally though, she sees heat pumps as a much more reliable option than oil-based systems. Peterson said the vulnerability of having to import fuels became apparent during the COVID pandemic.

“Every single community, that’s every building that’s heated off of diesel, or heating fuel, they have to barge that in. We’re just one natural disaster away from not having the ability to heat our homes,” Peterson said. “A lot of people felt that when the barges did stop. That was a concern. And it was like, ‘Whoa, this could actually happen. We have to figure out how to become more independent.’”

Alaska Power and Telephone has been pushing heat pumps for years. The company started an incentive program in 2021, and then partnered with the Sealaska Corporation the following year to expand those incentives. Now, it’s working with nonprofits like Spruce Root to secure federal funding.

Jason Custer, the company’s vice president, said heat pumps can save customers a lot of money on their heating bill and are one of the most effective ways to lower a household’s carbon footprint.

“If you look at all of the things that you could do for the environment, that you could do for decarbonization, for climate change,” Custer said, “the thing that has the best bang for the buck in the Tongass Forest region, by far, is heat pumps.”

Custer said data from the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority shows that Prince of Wales households with heat pumps are saving more than 50% on energy costs after switching from heating fuel.

Buying and installing a heat pump can be expensive — up to several thousand dollars — which Peterson said is the main barrier for many customers. But for the more than 200 families and businesses who are selected for this new program, that up-front cost will be fully covered. Spruce Root has not yet opened the application process, but any home or building owned by a tribal member may be eligible.

Michael Fanelli is the News Director at KRBD. He can be reached at michael@krbd.org.

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