Airport gives legislators a warm financial feeling

Catherine Fritz, the airport architect for the city, shows the pump room for the new geothermal ground source heat pump system now heating most of Juneau International Airport's terminal building on Tuesday.

The Alaska Legislature has been looking for ways to help communities fight rising power costs, and they’re looking at the Juneau International Airport’s geothermal heating system as one possible solution.

The Legislature helped Juneau fund the addition of a highly efficient geothermal heating system during recent renovations and expansion of the airport terminal initially constructed just after World War II.

At a recent House Resources Committee meeting, legislators looked at what they’d helped buy and appeared happy.

“Juneau was a really great example of what can be done with geothermal,” said Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau.

In the geothermal system that became operational last May, the airport replaced $130,000 worth of diesel heat with $15,000 worth of geothermal heat, said Catherine Fritz, airport architect.

The geothermal system uses 16 miles of underground piping containing a mixture of ethanol and water, and uses the difference between the temperatures down in the ground and the temperature in the air to create heat that can be used in the buildings.

The system does take electricity to pump the fluid through the pipes, but it takes much less energy than it would take diesel to produce the same amount of heat, Fritz said.

One place visitors to the airport see the system this time of year is in the ice-melt system under the entry sidewalks.

The totally thawed, dry concrete is a benefit to passengers and a help to airport staff, who no longer have to clean the sidewalks or put chemicals on them, but wouldn’t be cost effective without the geothermal assist, she said.

“This does come at a cost, this is not free energy,” Fritz said.

But, she added, “if we had used traditional energy such as diesel we would not have been able to afford to operate the system,” she said.

The big cost savings are not just from the geothermal, she said, but also from extensive work on the entire building, including new insulation and glazing that helps keep the heat in.

This is the first winter for the renovated building, and Fritz said it is doing well.

“So far we’re very pleased with how it is performing,” she said.

Muñoz said the legislators liked what it heard about the project for which it had originally provided some funding.

The Alaska Energy Authority provided $2.3 million in grant funding to help with the geothermal heat part of the multi-million dollar project.

“The grant funding made a huge, huge difference for us,” Fritz told the committee.

So much so that Fritz said she didn’t think it could have been done without the grant. Now, it is working so well it will likely pay for itself in less time than the 10 years originally expected.

Because Juneau gets almost all of its power from hydroelectricity, the conversion from diesel means a reduction in carbon emissions as well.

“We don’t have specific numbers, but we know it is helping,” she said.

Some committee members, including Muñoz, said they hope what Juneau is showing can be used in in other Alaska communities as well.

“We were very impressed with the presentation,” Muñoz said. “We’re hoping the state-of-the-art technology can be expanded to other communities.”

Committee Co-chairman Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, questioned whether it was possible in places colder than Juneau.

“Speaking from my district, you have a very mild climate here,” he said.

Feige’s co-chairman, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said similar geothermal projects were already being done in his district, and they might be used in more places than initially thought.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at


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