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Biomass cleans up its act

Yesterday we brought you the first story in a two part series on the push for biomass energy in Southeast Alaska.

Supporters believe wood biomass could be a solution to high energy and heating costs in the region, which continues to be dependent on fossil fuels.

But fossil fuels are considered a dirty source of energy. Whether its oil spills or CO2 emissions, it’s a resource associated with pollution. In some circles, biomass also has a dirty reputation.

In part two of the series, KTOO’s Casey Kelly reports on some of the air emission improvements in newer biomass heating systems.
Deep in the heart of Juneau’s Lemon Creek commercial district sits the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority’s warehouse – a brand new, mostly unremarkable, 10,000 square foot, blue and white building.

“We build and maintain homes throughout Southeast Alaska. This is our main regional headquarters here in Juneau,” says Craig Moore, Vice President of Planning and Development for the housing authority.

He says Tlingit and Haida wanted an energy efficient facility to house all of its construction equipment. So the warehouse includes insulated panels, and is heated with a modern, 191,000 BTU, wood pellet boiler.

“It’s heating the building just fine so far. It’s not been acting up. We don’t notice any noticeable emissions around here,” Moore says. “Sometimes when it first fires up you might smell a little bit of that, like a barbecue smell, like from your pellets on a barbecue. But I don’t mind it at all.”

Emissions from wood-fired heating systems can be a serious problem under certain winter weather conditions in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley.

“On a clear, cold day in the Mendenhall Valley, you can actually stand there and see wood smoke going up and it hits the inversion layer, and it just goes flat across the sky,” says City and Borough of Juneau Lands and Resources Manager Greg Chaney.

Wood smoke contains tiny particulate matter that can cause difficulty breathing, burning eyes, and runny nose, as well as aggravate other health conditions like asthma and bronchitis. Under the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency sets minimum air quality standards that include limits on particle pollution.

To comply with the act, Juneau monitors air quality and bans outdoor burning in the valley during winter months. When particulate levels get too high, a ban on using wood stoves goes into effect.

“Juneau has been one of the most successful communities in implementing air quality programs, because the Mendenhall Valley is a fairly discreet area and the people in the Mendenhall Valley have been fairly cooperative,” Chaney says.

Pellet stoves are exempt from the burn ban. That’s because they burn cleaner and hotter.

“Humans have been burning wood for a hundred thousand years or so, but I think we’ve gotten better at it recently,” says Bob Deering, Tongass Biomass Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in Southeast Alaska.

Part of Deering’s job is developing a strategy for expanding the use of biomass in the region. He says it can be a challenge getting people to use clean sources of wood heat.

“The biggest offenders for air quality are old technology wood stoves burning wet wood,” he says. “There you’re going to have your worst combustion, your worst efficiency and your worst emissions.”

Deering is installing a pellet boiler at his house in the Mendenhall Valley. He says modern biomass heating systems are nearly as clean as the oil-fired systems in most Juneau homes.

“Their air emission profiles are extremely low, and are lower than some of the older oil boilers,” Deering says. “The only way you’re going to have lower air emissions than the new pellet boilers, is if you put in a very state of the art oil boiler.”

Tlingit and Haida’s Moore says the agency is using other alternative energy systems in its rural housing developments. A new senior center in Yakutat has a cord wood gasification boiler. Another facility in Saxman uses an air-to-water heat pump. Of all the technologies, though, Moore says he’s most excited about pellets.

“The experts here are saying that these new high tech pellet boilers are very clean,” Moore says. “And I think pellets are going to be one of the answers out in the rural communities.”

And as more homes and businesses adopt the technology, Moore says its only a matter of time before a pellet manufacturer sets up shop in Southeast.

To read part one of this series, click here.

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