New Ambler heat pump project aims to drastically reduce diesel costs in the village

A worker installs a heat source air pump in Ambler. The village is set to see 70 of them installed in homes through the winter. (Photo courtesy of Ingemar Mathiasson)

Heating a home in the wintertime can be expensive in the Arctic, where residents rely on diesel for most of their energy needs. In an effort to cut down on fuel costs, the Northwest Arctic Borough is kicking off a project to install air source heat pumps in homes in the village of Ambler.

An air source heat pump operates a lot like a reverse air conditioner. 

“You basically steal the heat from the outside of the house and put it on the inside instead,” said Ingemar Mathiasson, the energy manager for the Northwest Arctic Borough.

He’s heading up the project to install 70 heat pumps in households in Ambler with money from the Borough’s Village Improvement Fund. The village has a population of around 287.

The pumps distribute as much heat as a small Toyo stove. Mathiasson says finding the right size was a balance between the cost of electricity to operate the heat pumps and the high cost of diesel. 

“You can get a heat pump to do the whole house,” Mathiasson said. “The efficiency goes down. We decided that the best way to do this was to maximize the savings.”

To maximize efficiency, Mathiasson recommends using the heat pump at temperatures above zero degrees. 

Each heat pump is also being installed with a solar array that can generate up to a kilowatt of electricity independent of the local power grid. Mathiasson says that will drastically reduce energy use in the summers.

“You add the solar arrays in there, during the full sun, they won’t draw anything from the grid,” Mathiasson said.

The installation of the air source heat pumps isn’t the only way the Borough is lowering energy costs in Ambler. They are also installing LED lights in every home. 

Installing the pump, solar arrays and LEDs costs about $8,200 per home, providing an average fuel savings of $2,000 to $3,000 dollars a year. This means they essentially pay for themselves in about three years. Mathiasson says they would be even cheaper were it not for the tariffs that President Donald Trump placed on goods from China, where the pumps are made.

The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than much of the world, which means less frigid winters. Mathiasson says that means that these heat pumps will likely be used later in the year, maximizing their efficiency.

“Right now in Ambler today, we’re at 42 degrees. And this is the end of October; we should be at 20 below,” Mathiasson said. “Of course, people are still using the heat pumps. Last year, some of the pilot projects we had up were using the heat pumps all the way in through December. So as the climates change and we no longer see those really lower temperatures, the heat pumps will be more and more effective.”

Ambler is the first Northwest Arctic community to have pumps installed in most of the village. But several homes and buildings throughout the region have had them installed as part of a pilot program over the last year, including VPSO and government offices. Mathiasson says the fuel pump on the tribal building in Kobuk hasn’t had to use diesel at all since installation in April.

Two households in Ambler were part of the pilot program. Scott Jones says his system was installed in 2017. 

“It’s made me lazy,” Jones said. “I get up in the morning, and the house has a little chill to it, so I just turn the heat pump on.”

Jones says he normally uses a wood stove to heat his home in the winter, using diesel mainly for heating water. He says he likes that it’s a safer machine than a boiler, since the heater is up on a wall — out of reach to kids. He says that using the heater in conjunction with the wood stove keeps the temperature at a very comfortable level, and he’s excited about the new project.

“They’re going to allow me to use solar panels in the system,” Jones said. “And in the months of April to October I should have basically free heat with the heat pump.”

And the pumps do more than heat homes. Mathiasson says they can be reversed to operate as air conditioners, an amenity that will become more and more useful as Arctic summers get hotter and hotter.

“Having air conditioning that nobody really had before, except in a few cases, makes a big difference in the households,” Mathiasson said. “They also filter the air. So there’s filters in there that if there’s wood heat, you can just turn them on to fan mode, and then they filter the inside air. And whatever particulates you have using wood would be stuck in the filter and not in people’s lungs.”

Shield Downey says the air filter option is invaluable. His home is also part of the pilot project with the heat pumps.

“It’s nice,” Downey said. “We get a lot of dust around here. We’ve got dirt roads like everywhere else, so it does help that way.”

Mathiasson says installation is due to start in early November, and the project should wrap up by late spring, with the pumps having a roughly 20-year lifespan. Part of the program will also involve training locals on how to service the pumps, adding a new trade and potential jobs to the community.