By Mindy O’Neall

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective

FAIRBANKS — If you are overwhelmed with various natural gas announcements, studies and so forth, you’re not alone. But it’s the simplicity of what the Interior Gas Utility offers that makes it so enticing: affordable gas as soon as possible. That’s it. The battle cry that energy prices have been far too high for far too long continues to resonate, but instead of desperation, the voices are changing to have a tinge of optimism.

On Thursday, IGU — along with energy partners from private, public and citizen organizations — held a conversion workshop in North Pole, the third public meeting this year. Within the first hour of the event, more than 100 community members streamed into Hotel North Pole, ready to talk specifics about their own heating systems, learn more about what energy efficiency programs exist and experience interactive modules of design, conversion and air quality.

This event was held the day after the Interior Energy Project partners revealed costs associated with delivering liquefied natural gas, from the yet-to-be-built North Slope LNG Plant to distribution. The number disclosed to a room of more than 200 people of $19.50 per mcf was 30 percent higher than the original community goal of $15 per mcf.

Even after media coverage focused on this increased price, the people of North Pole showed up to a conversions workshop with questions — and solutions — of how they could get natural gas to their homed and businesses, as well as how they could even help their neighbors. Every homeowner and business owner in the IGU Phase 1 area received an invitation in the mail with instructions to bring with them information such as their boiler or furnace manufacturer and age, the size of their home, and what they pay in heating fuel or wood per year. This information was the basis of a dialogue with energy experts, many with experience in large home heating conversion projects, such as the one in Homer.

You might remember that project successfully charged an assessment to each property owners’ taxes in order to effectively convert a high number of residents to natural gas. Obviously, that won’t ‘fly’ here. Attendees were exposed to a host of energy efficiency programs that already exist such as the Home Heating Rebate program through Alaska Housing and Finance Corporation, and the popular wood exchange program through the Fairbanks North Star Borough Air Quality Division. Borough representatives also presented information on clean wood burning, along with Clean Air Fairbanks members, who demonstrated online maps that show current air quality levels, resources already developed and readily available.

Hometown Superior Pellets showcased a compressed wood fiber log that can be used in conventional wood stoves. Representatives from the financial community talked with residents about tax incentives and programs available for home efficiency upgrades, and attendees were asked to provide feedback on a new and improved online conversion calculator. The new calculator will utilize data recently collected from the first pilot home heating evaluation project, and is scheduled to be live on the IGU’s website by the beginning of the year.

So why would a natural gas utility host an event for the community where wood burners, gas sellers and clean air advocates come together at a time when those same people see and feel the growing pains of a large-scale natural gas project?

Because it’s more important to remember we simply don’t have a choice but to bring energy relief to the most people possible, as soon as possible.

Like so many generations before us, we Alaskans must confront and overcome unique challenges. Ingenuity and resilience unite us and reveal the very core of what it means to call ourselves residents of the Last Frontier. Today, the high cost of energy is devastating our families and local economy; we have been paying far too much for energy for far too long, and it’s time for a solution.

The Interior Gas Utility is working hard to make all of this a reality and bring economic and environmental well-being to the Interior. We as a community have a responsibility to ask questions and educate ourselves about natural gas and what it means to the Interior. Affordable energy is not a luxury for our community and our economy — it’s long-overdue necessity. We deserve it.

Mindy O’Neall is the community affairs manager for the Interior Gas Utility, which will serve the Fairbanks and North Pole area outside the Fairbanks city limits. She lives in Fairbanks.