The Messenger: Should Alaska Natives Have To Fight the Government for Affordable Electricity?

September 29, 2023 | By JODI MITCHELL

Southeast Alaska is a study in contrasts. As home to the Tongass National Forest, it is rich with some of the state’s most beautiful natural treasures and abundant resources. But it’s also home to a number of remote small villages, populated primarily by indigenous native populations, where many people struggle to live off the land.

The Inside Passage Electric Cooperative (IPEC) is a small nonprofit electric utility that works to provide a steady, affordable supply of electrical power to these low-income communities. It’s a tough job, since many of the villages are located on hard-to-reach islands and in forested areas along the Alaska Panhandle. The challenges are daunting, yet we’ve made progress over the years supplying these hard-pressed communities with the power they need to survive.

But a federal rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatens our ability to serve these communities, which is why we’re challenging the regulators in court to defend our ability to provide for our customers’ power needs.

IPEC differs from many other electric co-ops in that we can’t just purchase electricity from larger providers; we must generate it ourselves. Historically, that has meant burning diesel fuel, which is expensive and creates pollution. In recent years, we’ve sought to shift to cheaper and renewable sources of energy such as hydroelectric and geothermal. This allows us to reduce rates for our customers and to have a smaller environmental footprint.

But to provide power, we need roads. And because of the location of the communities we seek to serve, that means cutting roads through national forests. Unfortunately, a USDA regulation — aptly known as “the roadless rule” — prohibits road construction in the national forest.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule is bad policy and bad law.

The benefits of hydroelectric projects are clear: They allow for the provision of a reliable supply of electricity at lower cost to consumers, while protecting the environment. It’s a rare win-win situation. We’ve already had substantial success with our first hydroelectric projects, which served as a proof of concept for the value and feasibility of these plants.

But the USDA’s roadless rule makes more of these projects impossible. If we can’t build service roads through the protected areas, we can’t build and service new projects — and we’re left with no choice but to continue burning diesel to provide power to these communities. It’s that simple.

The expense of diesel generation is a burden for the people who live in these communities. The villages we serve, populated primarily by Alaskan indigenous natives, are small; most have only a few hundred people, villages where families have lived for generations. Right now, many of these communities can’t even support a full-time restaurant. Reducing the cost of electricity would create opportunities for growth, job creation and tourism, bringing significant improvements to their quality of life.

Represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization, IPEC has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the roadless rule, arguing that the USDA does not have the authority to impose this sweeping rule. A victory would be a win for the U.S. Constitution because it would reinforce the separation of powers, which ensures that Congress alone makes law in the United States. But it would also be a win for the people of southeast Alaska, who right now are paying among the highest electric rates in the state.

As an Alaska native, I cherish our state’s natural resources and beauty, and believe we should do everything we can to protect those assets. But environmental protection must be balanced with the needs of our citizens. This federal regulation is hurting our ability to meet the needs of some of Alaska’s poorest populations and inhibiting our ability to produce cleaner energy. I don’t relish the prospect of getting into a legal fight with the federal government, but it’s the right thing to do to ensure that our communities have access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable electric service.

Jodi Mitchell of Juneau, Alaska, is CEO and general manager of Inside Passage Electric Cooperative (IPEC), a nonprofit electric utility cooperative that serves small native communities in southeast Alaska.