Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, stands with Cmdr. Ward Sandlin, the commanding officer at Air Station Sitka, in front of a wood pellet silo at the station’s main hangar. Begich toured the air station’s new wood pellet boiler. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)

Coast Guard Air Station Sitka is about to switch over to a new heating system, and it’s expected to save thousands of dollars every year. That’s because it runs on wood.

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U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has just walked into the boiler room at Air Station Sitka. It’s warm in here, and noisy, too, as Cmdr. Ward Sandlin leads him over to one of the building’s two boilers.

Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Chris Reaves puts on some safety gloves, walks up to the boiler, and opens a heavy metal door only slightly larger than a microwave. Begich takes a step back as a bright orange glow pours into the room, followed by a wave of searing heat.

“And to believe in the old days we’d throw a log on the fire and think that was … but now, a compressed log and you’ll use less,” Begich says. “It’s amazing.”

For as long as Coast Guard Air Station Sitka has existed, it has been heated by oil. But starting Nov. 11, the Air Station will switch over to wood-pellet heat. It is the first Coast Guard base in the country to use pellets.

Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Chris Reaves holds some of the wood pellets that fuel the new boilers at Air Station Sitka. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)

“Biomass is a new thing for the Coast Guard,” says Bob Deering.

Deering is a Coast Guard employee on loan to the Forest Service for one year, to figure out how to get energy from biomass in Southeast Alaska.

Moving Air Station Sitka to wood pellets is a good first step. But the pellets themselves are coming from British Columbia. Deering says having a pellet mill somewhere in Southeast probably won’t happen without 8 or 9 similar projects.

“Demand has to lead supply,” he said. “Nobody’s going to invest in a pellet mill, or the infrastructure necessary for bringing on this energy source in the region without already having a demand to sell their product to.”

But Deering says even sourcing the pellets from British Columbia or the lower 48 is still cost-effective.

For heating oil, the Coast Guard pays upward of $4 a gallon, and Air Station Sitka was using 85,000 gallons per year. That’s at least $340,000 a year. But with wood pellets, the Coast Guard pays $338 a ton, and expects to use about 800 tons a year. That works out to just over $270,000.

So what does that all mean? By switching to wood pellets, Air Station Sitka has knocked at least 20 percent off its heating costs.

It’s not flawless. The new boilers will require about four hours of maintenance a month, compared to the four hours every year needed with oil heat. And on this day, when the boiler turns on, the conference room and hallways at the Air Station start to smell a little like a campfire.

“We’re still working out a few minor bugs on the project, but that’s to be expected,” Deering says. “I’m pretty confident that this is going to work well for Sitka, and I’m quite confident that Kodiak is an excellent candidate for biomass as well. It’s just going to take time for all the decision makers in the agency to become comfortable with that.”

And that leads us back to Begich.

“It’s impressive, they’ve done a great job,” he said. “They’ve made it a simple project in terms of how to manage it, versus something very complex, which is critical for its long-term ability to be replicated throughout other bases.”

He’d like to see Kodiak convert just one of its boilers to woody biomass, probably a little faster than the Defense Department would like to see it.

“Government is so risk (averse) that they’d rather study things until the answer is ‘no,’ so they don’t have to do it,” he said. “I think what we find in Kodiak is that they want to wait a longer period of time – a three year potential study period. When you look at Kodiak, and it’s a payoff in three years in the sense of how it pays for itself, why don’t we just wait maybe a little while here, and then ratchet up Kodiak, because the risk is limited.”

He says when he goes back to Washington, D.C., he plans to talk to the Coast Guard about what he saw in Sitka, and will urge them to accelerate the project in Kodiak.