Southeast energy challenges lead to interest in biomass

Hand holding wood pellets
Wood pellets from Sealaska’s boiler supply. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)

Increasing diesel costs, shortage of hydro storage lead to talk of shift toward biomass to ease southeast Alaska’s energy demand

This article was originally published in The Juneau Empire.

Article cited in Ecology and Society, Volume 18, Issue 3

by Amy Condra

Water is abundant in Southeast — it falls freely from the sky throughout the summer and fall, filling rivers and creeks that tumble down our mountains, into the lakes, channels and canals, the bays and straits that wind their way throughout the land. Here, this water has sustained humans for thousands of years, providing fish, fur and a means to navigate the region.

And for more than a century it has generated power for homes, offices and industries.

Southeast has a significant number of hydroelectric power projects, and these plants have been a reliable and relatively inexpensive source of locally produced, renewable energy for many of our communities.

But according to a draft of the recently released Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan, while Southeast might have plenty of water to generate hydroelectricity, it is running short of ways to store it.

“We are storage-challenged,” said Dave Carlson, CEO of Southeast Alaska Power Agency and a member of the Advisory Work Group that assisted with the SEIRP. “(The draft plan) identified the problems we know of here, that we had more than a sense were coming. The winter time heating loads have just been skyrocketing.”

Why? Because as heating oil costs have risen dramatically over the past few years, Carlson said, “people have felt it in their pocketbooks, and have decided it’s cheaper to heat with electricity than with oil. It’s a dilemma.”

A closer look at Southeast’s energy use

“I think it’s a fair statement that the energy picture is evolving very fast for everyone in Alaska — and particularly in Southeast Alaska — due to the price of heating oil,” James Strandberg, Project Manager for Alaska Energy Authority, said.

The SEIRP was prepared for AEA by Black and Veatch Corporation, a worldwide engineering firm specializing in power production and transmission, and was funded by a legislative appropriation with additional funding by AEA. The intent of the SEIRP is to chart a regional energy strategy for the next 50 years.

An advisory work group included elected officials and representatives from utility departments, the federal government, village and regional Native corporations, and environmental organizations.

“This is the first integrated viewing of both the heating and electrical energy requirements for southeast Alaska, so we didn’t really know what to expect,” Strandberg said. “This is new ground.”

The draft plan does not reflect AEA’s or the administration’s position, said AEA spokesperson Karsten Rodvik.

“This is purely a review period; we’re looking for public participation,” Rodvik said. “It will take committed people to want to drill down and get into this, and participate in the discussion.”

That discussion may well center on some of the plan’s key findings. In addition to a shortage of hydro storage capacity, the SEIRP cites space heating conversions, an aggressive pursuit of biomass conversion programs and the economic feasibility of interties as topics of particular interest.

Heating loads are draining our hydro

According to the SEIRP, “The ‘achilles heel’ of the current hydro system is the recent trend towards conversion of oil space heating to electric space heating in those communities with access to low-cost hydroelectric.”

While switching to electric heat might seem like a good economic choice, it also is eroding reserve hydroelectric power capacities. And once that happens, communities are forced to switch back over to diesel to meet the increased demand.

“Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg, Sitka had excess hydro, and so people started converting once the electric rate was so much cheaper, after diesel rates went up a couple years ago. But power consumption nearly doubled — and there goes the excess hydro, and utilities have to run diesel. And then people are trying to get away from diesel by going to electric heat. It starts perpetuating this spiral,” said Robert Venables, Energy Coordinator for Southeast Conference and a member of the SEIRP Advisory Work Group.

One option proposed by the SEIRP is a vigorous biomass conversion program. Such a plan would ease the region away from its dependence on fossil fuel, while also lightening the winter time heating loads on hydro projects.

“We should be saving the electricity from hydropower for higher value functions,” Robert Deering, Environmental Branch Chief for USCG CEU Juneau, said. “We shouldn’t be using electricity to heat buildings when biomass is perfectly suited for that — biomass can’t run computers and welders and mining equipment, so let’s use biomass for its highest value, and electricity for its highest value.”

Biomass: An alternative to heating fuel

“I support several parts of the (SEIRP) plan, such as heating with biomass,” said Tim McLeod, President of Alaska Electric Light & Power and a member of the SEIRP Advisory Work Group.

“Right now most of the heating systems in Southeast, especially in Juneau, are oil-based,” McLeod said. “If we were to try to replace that with hydro power in Juneau, we would have to double our hydro capacity. That would drive the cost up so significantly, that we don’t support the idea of converting from oil to hydro. But I see the value of moving away from oil — we have no control over it. What we, and other communities in Southeast, hope is that those people who are currently using oil, but who want to convert to electricity for heating because it’s less expensive, move from oil to wood chip. Then the electrical system can grow slowly, and it won’t drive costs up because of the infrastructure required for new projects.”

“It is in our community’s best interests, in the long run and even the short run, if people use wood chips rather than heating oil,” McLeod said.

Not everyone who has read the SEIRP agrees that biomass should be touted as the primary heating option in the region.

“We are glad the IRP addresses space heating issues, as these are a key component of energy costs for Southeast households,” said Angel Drobnica, Energy Coordinator for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “However the plan focuses largely on a single solution, biomass heat conversions. Biomass energy should be explored and can have positive benefits for our region, but so should efficient electric heating options, such as heat pumps and other technologies.”

Proponents of biomass, such as Nathan Soboleff, Sealaska’s Renewable Energy Coordinator, cite the energy source’s stable pricing and low volatility as good reasons to convert.

Soboleff said that Sealaska Plaza converted from oil to wood pellet heating in 2010, motivated both by economic reasons as well as the opportunity to showcase a technology that is still relatively new to Alaska.

“We have saved over $45,000 a year by heating with pellets over oil, and that savings is based on heating oil at $4 per gallon — and everyone in Juneau knows that last year we were paying more than $4 per gallon,” Soboleff said. “We were effectively heating last year for $2.52 per gallon for heating oil, but burning pellets instead of oil. And we spent no more maintaining our pellet boiler than our oil boiler.”

The cost of the conversion from an oil system to a pellet system will be paid back in 4 1/2 years, Soboleff said.

The Coast Guard is currently replacing three oil boilers with pellet boilers at Air Station Sitka.

“The overall cost of the conversion was $1.8 million,” Deering said, “and will displace about 80,000 gallons of oil usage per year. The cost savings are getting better because the price of oil keeps going up.”

The SEIRP encourages an 80 percent replacement of heating oil with biomass in ten years.

“The plan as it is in draft form is perhaps one of the most aggressive plans worldwide for converting to biomass heating,” Soboleff said. “We’re really excited to see what kind of reactions the rest of the world would have. Of course, it’s just a plan, but great big ideas always start out as a plan.”

Sourcing biomass

Many involved with the SEIRP are hoping that wood pellet biomass emerges as both a heating alternative and a viable industry in the region.

“The hope in the region is that at some point, if we regularly use wood pellets, local job and manufacturing could be developed,” Venables said.

“This could help to keep a small but viable timber industry alive,” he said. “Only a percentage of logs harvested are good for sawing, and there’s a low utility grade that could be used for making pellets.”

How much wood does it take to create these pellets?

“As we’re looking at supply and at using local sources as supply, what is really striking to me is actually how little it takes to meet our needs compared to the amount of wood that is available,” Deering said. “In addition to logging residues and mill residues, one source of supply is young growth, which is about 40 to 50 years old. There is about a million acres of it in Southeast, and about 750,000 of that is part of the Tongass National Forest. Of that 750,000, about 250,000 potentially has no restrictions on it for logging, is not part of a national monument like Admiralty Island, is not a wilderness area, or part of setbacks for stream buffers — it is available to be harvested.”

“If you used only that young growth as your fuel supply, and you wanted to replace all of our heating oil usage in Southeast entirely, you would need less than 2,000 acres a year,” Deering said. “So you’re looking at a harvest rate of less than one percent per year.”

Until a large scale use of and demand for wood pellets is established in the region, Soboleff said, local biomass users such as Sealaska are importing pellets from down South.

“Our importing of pellets is just as reliable as everyone else importing oil heat,” Soboleff said. “But we want to eventually have a locally grown, made and owned wood pellet heating resource, and we can do that but it takes a commitment from the region, from municipalities, state government, federal government and private business owners that own large facilities. We could easily create the demand overnight if we got a dozen large facilities to convert to wood pellets.”

Daniel Parrent, Biomass and Forest Stewardship Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, acknowledges there are concerns about carbon emissions from wood pellet stoves.

“Some people might argue that it’s not carbon neutral, but when you consider that you’re not precluding forest regrowth — that new trees are going to grow back to replace the trees you cut down — those new trees recapture the carbon that was emitted from the trees you burned,” Parrent said. “It’s about 95 percent carbon neutral — yes there is a small price to pay for harvesting and processing and transportation, but biomass energy is about 95 percent carbon neutral.”

Soliciting public comment

Whether the region turns to biomass conversion as a way to mitigate rising fuel costs, or continues to explore the feasibility of various hydro projects or transmission lines, or pursues demand supply management and energy efficiency programs — or all three — one of its advisory board members said that the primary goal of the plan is to bring attention to Southeast’s current energy challenges.

“It’s one thing to have a report, and another to really let people know we have a problem,” Carlson said. “People can’t solve a problem if they don’t know it exists.”

AEA is currently gathering public comments for review, Venables said.

“Ultimately the legislature itself will take a look at the plan, and legislative hearings will be scheduled at some point,” Venables said. “But as a directional document, the SEIRP was never meant to set policy or tell the legislature or communities what to do; it shows options and pathways that can be followed to achieve expected results.”

“And the communities, individuals and their selected officials will have to decide,” Venables added, “individually and collectively, what they want their energy future to look like.”