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Biomass generators set to run in Fairbanks

Posted: December 12, 2011 - 5:45am

FAIRBANKS — It’s been more than a year since used paper and cardboard began piling up at K&K Recycling, gradually filling a warehouse at the Richardson Highway business in the form of half-ton bales.

Later this month, that unusual bounty will finally be put to use. K&K owner Bernie Karl plans to burn it, taking advantage of a new technology that will convert its heat to electricity.

Karl and a business partner, Connecticut-based United Technologies, have spent the past year developing the biomass generators. Company officials will arrive in Fairbanks Tuesday to complete the process, which Karl said should result in a new electricity source for Golden Valley Electric Association by Dec. 20.

“Everything is coming together,” he said. “It’s like a funnel, and we’re getting to the bottom of the funnel.”

The process takes recycled cardboard, paper and wood, then shreds it and forms the product into candy bar-sized pellets. Karl said those pellets will be fed through a hopper into five generator units at K&K, where they’ll be burned to create heat that will ultimately fuel an electric-generating turbine.

At least 5,000 tons of biomass pellets are required to fuel the generators each year. Karl said emissions from the generators, which will burn the pellets at 2,300 degrees, will meet state and federal pollution standards.

Karl said the project will initially produce 300 kilowatt hours of electricity before boosting its output to 500 kilowatt hours after the early bugs are worked out. That represents just a tiny portion of the electricity used by Golden Valley Electric Association customers, who consume roughly 200 megawatts of power per hour during winter.

Despite its modest size, the project is also appealing to GVEA, which has a self-imposed goal of generating 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2014. Projects like Karl’s allow the utility to incrementally build up the amount of renewable sources in its system, said Mike Wright, GVEA’s vice president of transmission and distribution.

“Our ultimate goal is to get off of oil-fired generation,” Wright said.

Karl initially planned to launch the biomass generation project a year ago but said being the “test case” for the technology took longer than anticipated. He also said the generators ended up being considerably more expensive than projected.

But Karl has a history of embracing alternative energy projects. He owns Chena Hot Springs Resort and transformed the destination so it runs on geothermal power.

Despite the challenges and delays, Karl said, he’s confident the biomass generators also will be a success. He hopes to eventually produce about 2.5 megawatts of power through an expanded system and even plans to build an adjacent one-acre greenhouse next summer that will use residual heat and carbon-dioxide.

“It’s going to be profitable,” he said. “I’m going to make my money growing food.”

In all, the project will cost about $6 million, Karl said, including a $2 million renewable energy grant from the state. That grant will be repaid in the form of reduced electric costs for GVEA customers — Karl’s 20-year contract calls for sales to the utility at a half-cent below its avoided cost.

Karl has collected most of the recycled material from Fort Wainwright and the University of Alaska Fairbanks during the past year, where bins quickly fill with paper, cardboard and other items. If the generation project works as he anticipates, he hopes to form a borough-wide recycling partnership to collect more fuel for the system.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said the borough envisions a network of additional transfer station recycling bins whose contents could go to K&K. He said the program would cut landfill costs while providing another outlet for recycling.

Karl said he’s been pleased at the cooperation he’s received throughout his endeavor. “This community has the desire to recycle,” he said. “It’s evident — there’s just so many positive people doing positive things.”

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