Robert Deering’s been looking for ways to cut the amount of diesel fuel used to heat Coast Guard buildings.

As environmental and energy branch chief for the Guard’s Juneau Civil Engineering Unit, he has a mandate to reduce emissions. But he has other reasons to consider pellet heat.

“We are not doing these projects strictly over carbon. We’re doing them for renewable energy and energy security, but primarily for economics. We’re using fewer tax dollars to heat our facilities,” he says.

Deering says he hopes to have a wood-pellet boiler installed at the air station within about a year. It will run around a million dollars, but fuel-cost savings are expected to make up the difference within a decade. Plus, the existing oil-fired boiler system needs to be replaced anyway.

The agency looked at other biomass options before choosing pellets.

“Initially we were looking at wood chips. We thought that was the route to go. There’s sources of wood chips in Southeast Alaska,” he says. “But as we looked at it further we saw that wood chips are difficult to transport. Either they’re full of water so you’re transporting a lot of water at extra cost. Or if you dry them out they become so fluffy that it’s difficult to efficiently transport the amount of BTUs they need to transport.”

He says pellets are easier to ship and are available from the Lower-48 and Canada. Though he’d prefer to purchase them from a Southeast supplier if one starts up.

The air station, next to Sitka’s airport, is one of several Southeast facilities considering or converting to wood energy. The city of Craig started using a waste-wood boiler to heat its pool and school buildings about two years ago. Sealaska Corporation is working on an oil-to-pellet conversion at its Juneau headquarters. And government facilities in Ketchikan, Haines and the capital city are also considering wood heat.

“Biomass is very obviously one component of the solution for moving away from diesel dependencies,” says
Robert Venables of Haines, energy coordinator for the Southeast Conference, a regional organization of business and government leaders.

“One of the largest uses of diesel that’s getting imported into Southeast is for space heating in homes and people’s businesses. And so the biomass solution is really, I think, going to be a large component for residences to commercial users, such as large stores, public facilities and the Coast Guard,” he says.

A bigger challenge is setting up a system for manufacturing and marketing pellets within the region. Backers hope to use mill waste, such as sawdust, and tree-thinning leftovers as the raw material.

“Biomass projects aren’t as easy to put in. They look really good from the outside but they’re difficult to fund and more difficult to put in than people realize,” says Karen Petersen of Thorne Bay, an advocate for wood biomass projects in Southeast.

She’s worked with small mill owners on Prince of Wales Island interested starting a pellet business. That group has looked into creating a regionally based supply. But Petersen says it’s hard to find start-up money.

“There are definitely grants but they’re somewhat challenging to get. You have to meet all kinds of requirements. If you don’t have the initial capital it’s difficult to move forward,” she says.

The Sitka effort included a look at a larger, centralized boiler that could have heated other buildings. The air station is on Japonski Island, which is also home to a University of Alaska campus, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium hospital, and Mount Edgecumbe High School.

The Coast Guard’s Deering says a recent study showed barriers to such a system.

“Due to the extent of the piping runs the Coast Guard station probably wasn’t feasible to tap into a central plant. So we would be best off going with our own system. But the economic feasibility of a central plant or individual plants for other facilities on Japonski looks very promising,” he says.

There’s debate over the environmental issues surrounding wood-pellet heat. Supporters say it’s an efficient, low-emission system that uses an easily renewable resource. Critics say it’s an unwise practice that can damage forest ecosystems and produces carbon dioxide, just like diesel.

Hear a report on Sealaska's plans for wood-pellet heat.
Listen to a report on home wood-heat conversions.
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