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My turn: SE Alaska oil is king. It is time for a revolution

Posted: August 16, 2011 - 8:09pm

Although we won’t be dethroning this monarch any time soon, we can start whittling away at its empire. This essay is not an indictment against oil, which provides vital enhancements to our lives, and powers our economy. But using this expensive resource for heating our buildings is becoming unsustainable.

Oil provides 80 percent of our region’s heating energy. The money we’re exporting for heating oil — more than $50 million annually — will exit our economy instead of circulating throughout our region creating jobs and prosperity.

If oil is king, hydropower is queen in Southeast. We are blessed with an abundant supply of free energy that literally falls from the sky.

So if we just convert our houses to hydro powered electric heating, our problems are solved, right? Unfortunately, no.

Our utilities are overtaxed by rapidly growing demand from customers switching from expensive oil heat.

There are not nearly enough dams and powerhouses to meet our region’s heating needs, even using advanced technologies like heat pumps. Installing a new dam represents a massive capital expense and often decades of lead-time, so the utility’s only option will be to raise electricity rates significantly to discourage this new load growth.

We’ll all pay higher rates as a result.

We do have another abundant, renewable supply of energy: Biomass (i.e. wood)

Southeast is the Saudi Arabia of biomass.

But will we need to clear-cut the Tongass (again) to keep our houses warm? Not hardly.

There is an ample supply of waste wood, sawmill residues, and byproducts from habitat restoration thinning, road maintenance, and land clearing operations to displace the entire 20 million gallons of heating oil that Southeast uses.

For example, preliminary Forest Service estimates suggest that the amount of recoverable ‘waste’ wood stacked alongside the Prince of Wales road system alone might be enough to provide for all of Southeast’s heating needs for 100 years.

Biomass is not perfect. For one, it does emit carbon dioxide when it’s burned. But no more than the heating oil it will replace. If the wood is left to decay, it will ultimately release its carbon dioxide anyway as part of the decomposition process, so the climate takes a double hit.

Air quality has been an issue with wood burning in some places. However, modern pellet boilers are not your father’s smoky old wood stove. They burn smoke-free and efficiently.

Wood pellets at $350 per ton equate to heating oil at about $3.00 per gallon. Oil’s currently closer to $4.00 in Juneau, higher in other Southeast communities. A typical Juneau home might save $500 or more per year switching to pellets.

Historically, pellet prices have not increased as fast as oil prices, and are far less prone to the wild, unpredictable price swings oil suffers.

Pellet boilers can replace oil boilers for a slight price premium, but the fuel cost savings quickly pays for the conversion. As pellet heating becomes more standard here, we’ll see lower fuel and conversion costs as the economies of scale and competition kick in.

Sealaska Corporation and the City of Craig have successfully deployed state-of-the-art commercial systems in their facilities, saving over $100 thousand last year as a result. Federal agencies in Southeast, including my employer, the Coast Guard, are following their lead.

Southeast communities need to make a conscious commitment to self-determination when it comes to the future of our energy economy. It will require a coordinated effort, involving public sector policies and incentives and private sector investment, to transition our energy economy from oil to biomass.

For starters, we need pellet production mills in the region to produce the necessary fuel for this new energy option, creating regional jobs in the process.

We’ll need transportation and storage solutions, boiler suppliers and installers, and people delivering fuel to our home pellet tanks. I’m confident that the businesses supporting our current oil heating supply network will quickly adapt to this new fuel media. If not, other entrepreneurs will step in to fill the void.

All new public facility construction should consider biomass as one of the first heating options; oil heat should be the last. Increasing biomass demand will have the effect of stimulating more supply, which will enable more demand, thus creating a virtuous cycle.

In our current climate of hyper-partisanship and polarization, this is one issue that can rally nearly universal support. Whatever your political or philosophical inclinations, there’s something to like in a solution that improves our economy, our environment, and our energy security.

Sometimes a little revolution is a good thing.

• Deering, of Juneau, is an engineer and energy manager for the U.S. Coast Guard. His views expressed here are his own.

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