Biomass boost: Haines and Hydaburg win renewable heating grants

Thorne Bay has been using its biomass system since XX.
The Thorne Bay School installed its biomass system 2012. It heats the school, gym and a greenhouse. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

Two Alaska communities are receiving a federal grant to jump-start renewable energy projects. Haines and the village of Hydaburg were selected from 77 applicants nationwide.

Over the past 10 years, about 36 biomass systems have been installed in Alaska. The term sounds pretty technical, but it’s used to describe a prehistoric way to stay warm: a wood burning fire.

“You know, we’re not talking about some smoky, old wood stove here. We’re talking about high-tech equipment,” said Daniel Parrent, a program manager at the U.S. Forest Service.

He said the Wood Innovation Grants were awarded to projects that maximize energy efficiency. Typically, the wood comes from second growth or byproducts. It also mitigates the threat of wildfire.

In the village of Hydaburg, the grant is funding the heat system for the school, which also includes a greenhouse. Cordwood will keep the buildings warm, displacing over 24,000 gallons of heating fuel a year. The total cost is about $900,000, with the bulk of the funding coming from the Alaska Energy Authority.

In the past decade, Parrent said he’s seen more cities consider biomass as a viable option.

“You know, several years ago, oil prices were through the roof, and that’s when a lot of these projects got started and got funded,” Parrent said.

Although the price of oil has dropped, that interest has remained.

A $1.5 million biomass system is in the works that could heat the Haines Borough’s schools, some public facilities and a swimming pool with wood chips. Darsie Culbeck, a biomass consultant to the borough, said the project will lessen dependency on fuel shipped in from Seattle, helping the community become more sustainable.

In turn, he said the wood chips could come from the Haines State Forest and stimulate the local economy.

“(If a) budget crisis happens and we lose our art teacher, … can we keep that art teacher because we saved enough money on fuel? That would be awesome,” Culbeck said.

In 2010, the village of Tok fired up its biomass boiler and three years later they were saving enough money to add a music teacher and school counselor.

Hydaburg and Haines’ biomass systems are expected to be completed next year.

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