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The draft Southeast IRP is fatally flawed

Posted: March 13, 2012 - 12:00am

The draft Southeast Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) is out for public comment until March 19. The Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) contracted Black & Veatch to prepare it.

The IRP proposes converting 80 percent of Southeast’s space heating to biomass within 10 years. Cost: over half-a-billion-dollars. While calling for this massive biomass program the plan gives heat pumps no role, a failure resulting from multiple instances of misinformation in the document.

For example, the claim that air source heat pumps generally require expensive air ducts is outdated and no longer true. Inexpensive split and mini-split models are easy to install and already at work here in Southeast. The IRP ignored all of the experience with heat pumps in Southeast’s hydro communities. Here in Sitka the Forest Service office has had air-source heat pumps for about 20 years, and Blatchley Middle School is converting to them right now. There are others at offices, businesses and homes. Juneau has good examples, too, including geothermal or sea-water source heat pumps at the airport and the NOAA lab. The IRP is not credible on this topic.

A crucial error is the IRP’s claim that wood pellet heat costs less than running a heat pump when power costs more than 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (KWh), for pellets costing $250 per ton. (IRP, Table 16-9). That alleged break-even point, which is about half the current price of hydro-electricity, is a gross error. Black & Veatch has acknowledged to me, after weeks of delay, that the correct breakeven point for pellets is 19.5 cents per KWh. Further, at the current price for pellets ($375/ton according to the IRP) pellets don’t breakeven with heat pumps until the cost of power increases beyond 29 cents per KWh.

At either price for pellets, and with hydropower currently at 9 to 12 cents per KWh in larger Southeast towns, using pellet stoves will be far more costly than heat pumps into the distant future, and perhaps always. The IRP missed this point entirely, and in error it assumed and acted on the opposite conclusion. The IRP gushes repeatedly over the low cost of biomass versus fuel oil heat, and ignores the fact that heat pumps greatly outperform biomass on economy.

AEA, too, ignores that fact. In late February, after the breakeven-point error had been acknowledged, AEA’s IRP Project Manager and its Biomass Program Manager testified to the House Economic Development Committee about the IRP, saying that wood pellet heat is much cheaper than oil heat. They failed to disclose that in the hydro communities heat pumps are far cheaper to run than pellet stoves.

The above errors and omissions — which resulted in the IRP ignoring the least-cost heat pump option — should be declared fatal to the IRP draft. The IRP is crippled from its foundation up because in a comprehensive energy plan the full and even-handed consideration to all options, particularly ones that outperform, is crucial.

What is needed now is a new, thoroughly revised draft of the Southeast IRP. The current draft is not ready to go to a final version. The public needs a reasonable, complete and fair draft on which to comment, first.

A final point is that the hydropower communities can convert from both their existing inefficient electric resistance heating (i.e. baseboards or space heaters) and fuel oil heating to heat pumps, with little burden on — or even a gain to — our existing hydro systems. This is the 10-year conversion program we need, not one for biomass, as this will leverage Southeast’s hydropower for heating at low, predictable prices at a scale consistent with existing and planned hydro capacity.

For example: In Sitka, 38% of residential heat was by electric resistance already in 2008 (and now, more). Converting those homes to air-source heat pumps would cut power consumption enough that even after also switching all oil-fired homes to heat pumps the outcome would be a net reduction in the city’s power consumption.

A further gain could be had by creating some district heating systems, supplied by seawater-source heat pumps. Scandinavian systems are good models for this.

• Edwards is a forest campaigner for Greenpeace and a long-time resident of Sitka.

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