Training coordination program People in Power (PIP) has been hard at work this spring. The initiative, funded by the Denali Commission, the Department of Energy’s Arctic Energy Office, and the Rural Alaska Community Action Program and executed by REAP, improves performance at independent electric utilities in rural communities throughout Alaska with support and training for governance, management, operations and clerical staff. Its targeted and community-responsive training model has garnered big successes so far.

In 2023, PIP Utility Training Coordinator Jacob Powell and ANEEE Director Chris McConnell developed a database and assessment tools to determine occupational expertise and training needs within standalone utilities, conducted outreach and assessments within 20 communities, and then partnered with 10 communities to facilitate training coordination and delivery. Part of that early work included developing a checklist to assess powerhouse operators’ training needs and track their skill development throughout the duration of the program. Another crucial early work product was the creation of an online resource inventory available to all independent Alaska utilities.

Training coordination and delivery for the 10 communities participating in PIP got into full swing in 2024, all while developing and incorporating training and employment best practices. Trainees are compensated for the time they spend learning and upskilling; local expertise is identified, certified, and compensated to serve as instructors; training is located within the region whenever possible; and if local training isn’t feasible, travel and lodging is arranged and fully funded.

The foundational time spent the previous year building relationships with staff and stakeholders and assessing regional assets and needs was crucial to the success of the first slate of trainings. For instance, in Kongiganak, a rural community in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta with a wind-diesel system, early assessments found that their operations lead, Willie Mute, was a skilled tower climber. PIP facilitated and funded his attendance and successful completion of a certified climber and rescuer class for industrial tower climbing instruction, called a “train the trainer” course, so that he can now train and certify others in the region.

Another instance of early skill identification leading to fruitful regional training opportunities took place in the Lake and Peninsula Borough. Port Heiden, a small community on the Alaska Peninsula, has a highly skilled powerhouse operator who completed Power Plant Operation coursework at Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward. With other communities nearby in need of power plant operation training, PIP organized and paid Port Heiden’s operator to travel to Chignik Bay, another small community nearby, and train a fellow operator.

In addition to identifying and uplifting local talent to serve as in-region trainers, PIP also leveraged existing resources and coordinated staff attendance to courses provided by the state and university. Electric utility managers attended Rural Utility Business Administration courses in utility management and human resources. In another case, two operators traveled to Kotzebue to learn and get certified in a solar PV 101 course provided by the Native Village of Kotzebue and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Bristol Bay Campus.

PIP’s partnerships with communities has also led to timely technical assistance for grant identification, writing, and application during this transformational federal funding cycle. PIP’s Jacob Powell ensures that communities are able to take full advantage of promising grant opportunities, especially noncompetitive formula grant programs. Powell also coordinated and assisted Chignik Bay’s utility manager with their successful application to Alaska Energy Authority’s Renewable Energy-Village Energy Efficiency Program to weatherize and solarize their community hall. 

PIP is also developing custom and evergreen training resources for future use, including a Power Cost Equalization (PCE) 101 training video and powerhouse operator wall charts. And the program is continually pursuing partnerships with other entities and agencies to unlock more benefits for the communities it serves. PIP works closely with Alaska Center for Energy and Power’s (ACEP) senior research engineer Rob Bensin for technical training and troubleshooting. Additionally, the program is coordinating with experts from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, Alaska Energy Authority, and the Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Local Government Assistance Section to administer a PCE and Quickbooks training for more than 10 clerks and managers this spring. At this exciting time for energy developments throughout Alaska, PIP is hard at work ensuring the people powering those systems are ready and supported for the transition.