Wood-pellet heat systems pitched to lawmakers

Backers of biomass energy pitched wood-pellet heat as a money-saver during a legislative hearing today (Feb. 21st).

Alaska Energy Authority staff and others talked to the House Committee on Economic Development about the Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan. The document recommends developing more pellet and other wood heat, as well as some expanded hydroelectric generation.

AEA Biomass Program Manager Devany Plentovich said high fuel prices have driven many residents to heat with electricity instead of oil.

“Unfortunately, as we’ve switched so much to the space heating, we’ve seen the reserve hydro just disappear to a remarkable rate. It’s at the point where our utilities are having to supplement the hydro during the winter season with diesel generation. And that’s very high-cost diesel generation,” she said.

Southeast lawmakers and other officials have called for more hydroprojects with more connections to more communities.

Sealaska Corp.'s wood-pellet boiler. Photo by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power - UAF.

But the resource plan calls for a larger focus on wood heat, in businesses, offices and schools. And some are already making the switch.

Plentovich said wood-pellet heat costs less than oil-powered systems, and has about the same price tag as electric ones. And, she said, boiler conversions are short-term investments.

The Sealaska building, that’s going to pay back in about four and a half years. The Kake school, if that gets funded through the renewable energy fund, that’s got about a six- to seven-year payback. The Coast Guard in Sitka is looking at about a five-year payback. So these projects have a great economic story,” she said.

Energy authority staff said pellets would be a better deal if a large manufacturing plant opened in Southeast. Now, most are shipped in from British Columbia.

Ketchikan’s Tongass Forest Enterprises just began operating a pellet plant in Ward Cove. It’s selling to local boilers, but not homes.

Several Prince of Wales Island groups have had less success. One, Alaska Mills LLC, shelved plans due to a high investment risk. Another, involving small mill owners, has not been able to find financing.

AEA Project Manager Jim Strandberg said low timber harvests are a barrier to regional pellet production.

“One of the major issues in Southeast Alaska is the ability to harvest timber. Since much of the land here is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, access will be a key driver in the ability to develop local industries,” he said.

Many of those involved in biomass say the wood for pellets would come from mill waste and logging leftovers. Other woody biomass includes chips, briquettes and traditional firewood.

The regional energy plan drew criticism at a House Resources Committee hearing earlier this month. Some speakers wanted stronger support for new hydroelectric development and a larger power grid.

Authors say it realistically considered the needs of a region where little population growth is expected.

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