Ketchikan federal buildings sets biomass precedent
Mar 29, 2012 (Alaska Journal of Commerce - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
It's not unusual to find people or businesses looking for environmentally conscious modernizations in a place like Alaska, especially if one can save a few bucks. Government entities show they aren't immune to these ideals either, as Alaska sets a national precedent in biomass power.
The Ketchikan Federal Building recently became the first federal building in the nation to install a biomass boiler system. The effort was administered by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which manages federal buildings with the exception of military installations.
The project came about when GSA began searching for alternatives to replace the outdated steam heating system and oil-burning boiler. The original plan called for installing another oil-based system, but GSA saw this as an opportunity for a green energy upgrade to meet criteria of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. They decided on a wood pellet system.
"Southeast Alaska was looking to enhance their economic market for this type of pellet and there were other agencies, public and private, that were looking at biomass alternate fuel sources," said Todd Gillies, the project management branch chief.
GSA Public Affair Manager Stephanie Kenitzer said this will serve as a testing ground for green initiatives to see if it's a viable option for other federal buildings in the country. There will be ongoing measurements and verifications of its progress.
The $5 million project involved more than the boiler. It included conversion from a stream-heated system to hydronic heat, and an oil fire boiler.
The pellets themselves are supplied by Sealaska, which is the only in-state source for large-scale commercial wood pellet use. Sealaska's renewable energy program manager, Nathan Soboleff, said they had a hand in helping GSA decide on the pellets as their biomass of choice.
The Ketchikan building's project manager, Mike Rayburn, said wood pellets were selected as the building's biomass option because of its efficiency and "quality control of what you're putting in the boiler." Soboleff said pellets also have more price stability.
The project has been planned since the summer of 2010, shortly before Sealaska fired up the state's first such boiler in its downtown Juneau building.
The conversion should result in a significant savings to heating fuel, which typically runs higher than $4 per gallon in several areas within the state. The Ketchikan building used to burn through 9,000 gallons each year.
"We're anticipating saving around 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of heating fuel every year," Rayburn said.
Soboleff said that at a $4 per gallon price for heating oil, Sealaska saved more than $45,000 with its biomass boiler last year, which is significantly higher than what the Alaska Native corporation originally expected.
The new system will run roughly 60 percent of the time for the first year, with the old oil-burning system covering the rest. This is because the new system is still in the proving ground phase and also to make sure both systems stay operational. The old system will continue in the building as backup.
"We will hopefully go from 60 percent use to maybe 90 percent use," Rayburn said. Increasing the usage also will be driven by the state's pellet supply growth.
Soboleff said the technology is still new in Alaska, but is growing. He said that besides Sealaska and this federal building, there are a few other large institutions within the state either considering wood pellets or have already begun initiatives, including the Forest Service Discovery Center in Ketchikan and U.S. Coast Guard in Sitka. Rayburn said the Ketchikan library is also considering it.
Sealaska has the market cornered for these bigger-sized sales, with its primary customers being itself and now the federal building. Soboleff said they have also sold to the business owner who has the contract to fuel the Forest Service building and will also bid on a contract for the Coast Guard's system once it's up and running.
Sealaska spokeswoman Dixie Hutchinson said the reason Sealaska has led the charge in demonstrating the state can support a commercial-size pellet need is to create enough need to establish a pellet manufacturing plant. Sealaska currently gets the pellets from Washington.
"We see that as creating new jobs, a new economy and sustaining the current economy," she said.
While the local demand is not enough to support a full-sized pellet mill, Soboleff said interest will grow as more buildings use biomass. He estimates there needs to be a demand for 12,000 tons to 15,000 tons of pellets to sustain a manufacturing plant, with that number being on the low end. The Sealaska building consumes about 250 tons of pellets in a year, meaning several more commercial-size buildings would have to convert their systems to support an industry.
"The good news is other parts of the world have created that kind of growth in just a couple of years," he said. "You can experience that growth very rapidly."
The pellet market is starting to catch on here, albeit slowly. A few individuals are working on setting up production and distribution, although most will have to start too small for commercial sales. One of these is Superior Pellet Fuels near Fairbanks, which focuses mainly on residences. Soboleff said another small Southeast entity has purchased equipment to make pellets but the region already consumes more than this can provide.
Jonathan Grass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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