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Biomass could ease pressure on SE's hydro

Imported wood pellets compete with diesel fuel, even after the cost of importation to Alaska

Posted: February 22, 2012 - 12:04am

Biomass, energy efficiency and hydroelectric development, if taken together, could save Juneau ratepayers more than half of their energy bill by 2016.

The Alaska Energy Authority recently released its draft Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan, a plan for region-wide energy development. AEA contracted consultants Black and Veatch to complete the draft.

One of the plans more controversial recommendations is to expand the use of biomass fuel to heat homes in southeast Alaska.

Devany Plentovich, AEA Biomass Program Manager, talked about the role biomass could play in a southeast energy paradigm to the House Special Committee on Economic Development, Trade and Tourism on Tuesday.

Three-quarters of the energy costs for Juneau ratepayers comes from space heating, Plentovich said.

Many homeowners and businesses have reacted to volatile fossil fuel prices by replacing diesel heating with electric sources.

This has used up much of the reserve built into southeast’s existing hydro infrastructure, she said.

“So much so that some utilities must burn expensive diesel in winter months,” Plentovich said.

Adopting cord wood, wood chip or wood pellet biomass for space heating could free up current hydro assets and reduce the amount of electricity generation needed in the future.

AEA says it could also save Alaskans money.

To reach the full potential of cost saving, AEA recommends a combination of building new hydroelectric projects, improving the energy efficiency of homes, businesses and public spaces along with adopting biomass heat.

As an example, Plentovich said Angoon residents currently pay $350 each month to their heat homes. Without adopting AEA’s recommendations, that price is expected to rise to $426 by 2016.

With the recommendations, Angoon households will see their bills drop to about $180.

The $225 Juneau residents on average currently pay for heating could drop to $129 per month by 2016, or rise to $312 if nothing changes.

Sealaska Corp. installed a wood pellet biomass boiler in its Juneau office building. Plentovich said savings from the boiler could pay back its cost within four years.

Alaska currently has only small-scale pellet manufacturers, Plentovich said. Sealaska ships wood pellets for its boiler from the Pacific Northwest.

At the source, pellets go for about $150 to $170 per ton.

After shipping Alaskans pay about $240 for that same ton.

However, even though shipping accounts for half the price, wood pellets are competitive with hydro and half the price of diesel.

AEA assumes that Southeast will need to import pellets for some time to come. Increased demand could make a local pellet market feasible, Plentovich said.

• Contact the reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or russell.stigall@juneauempire.com

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