Alaska warms up to biomass heat, Haines not far behind

Haines State Forest
Haines State Forest. (Creative Commons photo by ~dgies)

The Haines Borough government wants biomass fuel warming 10 municipal buildings in town from a central location.

The plan is moving forward, though a date for implementation is months, or more, away. Three refurbished Coast Guard boilers are now in Haines. But there are still a lot of details to figure out before the systems are up and running. An advisory group met this week to discuss the potential benefits of increasing the biomass presence in Haines.

Biomass heat is being used across the state to heat buildings large and small. The systems use pellets or wood chips to fuel boilers as an Earth-friendly, locally sustainable alternative or addition to oil-burning furnaces. Pellets have been heating the senior center for a few years, but not without glitches.

The borough recently received a $1.3 million grant from the Alaska Energy Authority’s Renewable Energy Fund to move forward with the massive undertaking. A maximum grant of $250,000 through the U.S. Forest Service’s Wood Innovation program is also up for grabs. That funding could help with permitting and design of the project, but not the actual construction, and requires a 35 percent match.

The idea of heating multiple facilities around Haines with wood products has been on the table for at least a decade. And residents like Stephanie Scott said the reasons to make the switch are many.

“We have in our valley, the Haines State Forest,” Scott said. “We have a ready supply. And if we can someday convert that into the fuel supply that we can use here locally, it seems that we have secured our future with a renewable source of energy.”

Scott was one of two members of the public that showed up at a meeting of the local biomass advisory group.  The committee features members from borough, state and federal agencies.

Ed Bryant sees to facilities maintenance for the borough and takes care of the boiler at the senior center. He said that there have been some issues, but with routine cleaning and care the system works, and works well.

“The boiler we have at the senior center is a beautiful piece of work,” said Bryant. “It works flawlessly. I think the problems we I still believe have to do with the fuel but we seem to have that worked out. The boiler is working beautiful right now.”

Biomass boilers can burn either wood pellets, wood chips or cord wood. The used boilers that the borough recently obtained for $60,000 can burn either pellets or chips. Pellets are manufactured in Ketchikan on a small scale and in North Pole on a larger scale.

There is also a huge pellet plant in British Columbia that supplies places around the world. Pellets are easy in that they come ready to burn. Chips require processing to get consistent sizes, and they also need to be dried. They must have less than 30 percent moisture content to burn efficiently. But the chip manufacturing and processing is something that could be done in Haines, providing local jobs and cutting costs. The group agreed that chips are the way to go long term, if the correct manufacturing system is figured out.

“If we can keep our heating dollars in our community instead of sending them to Seattle for diesel or Prince Rupert for pellets, that’s the huge win,” said borough consultant Darsie Culbeck. “We spend roughly $300,000 a year heating borough buildings and that money goes away and doesn’t create a lot of jobs here. But if it was to be spent in our local forest, wow, the multiplier on $300,000? That could be a million dollars or more that’s rolling around in the local economy.”

But, Culbeck said the biggest draw to producing chips to heat local buildings is the independence that comes with making your own fuel. Local forester Greg Palmieri agrees.

“I absolutely believe that it’s not only in our best interest but we could set an example for the rest of the rural communities across the state where they can see the reality of the resources around them, if they’re managed regionally,” Palmieri said. “And not looked at as some commodity that can be exported and a million dollars made one year because the market’s high.”

The biomass trend is gaining momentum in the state, says Devany Plentovich. She’s the biomass program manager with the Alaska Energy Authority. Plentovich and others in the field, including Culbeck, went on an Alaska biomass tour last month to see what other communities are doing. In Tok, for example, biomass fuel heats the school, but the steam is also used to produce 40 kilowatts of electricity each day. Also, the system heats school greenhouses used to grow vegetables and engage students. Plentovich says there are 32 systems operating across the state.

“There has just been an explosion of biomass projects in the state and we have some very, very good examples of how a biomass system can be integrated into the community,” she said.

The new boilers won’t replace the oil burning methods currently used, but would pick up much of day-to-day heating needs.

And as Robert Venables, the energy coordinator for Southeast Conference, said: The ebbs and flows of oil prices become irrelevant when we’re surrounded by a resource that could be used instead.

That, he said, makes this project worth the pursuit.

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