Building a critical mass for biomass

In renewable energy circles, biomass is a term that refers to plants or plant-made materials that can be burned to heat buildings or fuel power generation facilities.

As the price of electricity and home heating fuel continues to rise, some Southeast Alaska residents and businesses are making the switch to biomass.

In the first of a two part series, KTOO’s Casey Kelly talks to biomass advocates to find out why.
Like many Alaskans, Bob Deering is familiar with using wood to heat his home. He has an old wood stove, but says he barely uses it since installing a pair of pellet stoves a couple years ago.

“The pellet stove lights itself in the morning. It’s got a programmable thermostat,” Deering says. “When I get up, the house is nice and warm. I could never convince my wife to get out of bed in the morning and light up the wood stove.”

But his primary heat source has always been an oil-fired boiler. It’s 20 years old and nearing the end of its useful life. So Deering is going to wood 100 percent of the time. He’s switching to a residential pellet boiler. Unlike the stoves, a boiler will be able to heat his entire house, as well as a small accessory apartment and his hot water tank.

“The pellet boiler just gives me a lot more flexibility and I can provide all of my heating needs versus having to rely on multiple sources,” he says.

A civil engineer, Deering has made a career out of building alternative heating systems for the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska. For the past year he’s been on loan to the U.S. Forest Service, where his title is Biomass Coordinator for the Tongass National Forest. He says the agency is interested in helping establish a biomass industry in Southeast Alaska.

“The communities in Southeast Alaska use somewhere around 22 million gallons of heating oil a year,” Deering says. “That’s a lot of money that’s being exported out of our region just to import oil, when we could be using a local resource available to us right here.”

Right now, the only pellets available in Southeast are mainly imported from Canada or the Pacific Northwest. A 40-pound bag sells for about $6 to $7 at most hardware stores in Juneau. You can also buy in bulk for about $300 to $400 a ton.

Alec Mesdag is an energy services specialist for Alaska Electric Light and Power – Juneau’s privately owned electric utility. Part of his job is to help customers figure out the best heating system for their home or business. He says biomass makes a lot of sense for people like Deering, who are looking to replace or supplement their oil-based systems. On average, Mesdag says pellets are up to 40 percent cheaper than oil for the amount of energy produced.

“Newer pellet boilers are very good units. They’re high quality, the engineering is very sound,” Mesdag says.

In Europe, Austria is the leader for converting oil-based heat to biomass. Bernhard Holzer works for Windhager, the company that made Deering’s new boiler.

“In total, in Austria we have about 28 pellet boiler manufacturers,” he says. “Germany is 10 times larger than Austria – 80 million inhabitants – they have about four.”

Holzer was in Juneau recently for a presentation on biomass sponsored by the Juneau Economic Development Council. He says 20 years ago Austria was in much the same place as Southeast Alaska, heavily reliant on oil for heat. The government encouraged residents to switch to wood and encouraged the creation of a biomass industry using financial incentives, regulatory measures, and public awareness. Holzer calls those strategies “carrots, sticks and tambourines.”

“You have to give something, you have to make some rules, and the tambourines is the information and training,” Holzer says. “This is very important – energy advice to the final customer.”

As the Tongass biomass coordinator, Deering is laying the foundation in Southeast for a long term, coordinated approach like the one in Austria. Meanwhile, some local businesses and nonprofits are already a step ahead of him. In recent years, Sealaska Corporation, Alaskan Brewing Company, and the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority have installed new biomass boilers at their facilities in Juneau.

Deering says that’s an indication the region is ready to make the switch to wood pellets.

“I think the economics are going to be the motivating factor,” he says. “Much more so than some guy from the government.”

To read part two of this series, click here.

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