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Difficulties plague biomass-burning generators

Posted: May 7, 2013 - 12:02am

FAIRBANKS — Experimental biomass-burning generators aren’t working out as lucratively and efficiently as a Fairbanks area businessman had hoped when he launched the idea to turn waste paper into electricity more than two years ago.

Bernie Karl’s project is costing more and generating less revenue than he figured it would, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Karl’s biomass-burning system at his K&K Recycling is, indeed, making electricity out of garbage, but nothing about the endeavor has been easy, Karl said.

“There is no game book. There is no blueprint,” he said. “We’re making it up as we go.”

However, he plans to push ahead with the nearly $6 million project, even though his dreams of using the generators as a cheap power source for rural Alaska villages have been abandoned.

Karl hopes to see enough revenue streams come together to make it all work by the end of the year, despite mounting debt and countless challenges.

In late 2010, K&K Recycling began a new recycling program to collect items like mixed paper, plastic and glass from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and military installations in the area.

The paper is shredded and formed into large pellets, then fed into biomass-burning generators. A business partner, Connecticut-based United Technologies, developed the experimental system with Karl.

The payoff was expected to come from sales of electricity to Golden Valley Electric Association, but the new biomass-burning system has fallen short of its potential.

With a nearly $2 million grant from the Alaska Energy Authority, Karl reached a 20-year agreement with the utility to sell electricity at a discount.

The generators provided power at about 38 percent of his target in 2012, according to Karl, and only three of its five units have been fired up while he learns how to improve the system.

Karl figures he’s spending $100,000 per month on the project. He wasn’t specific about revenues made from electricity sales to GVEA but said it’s not nearly enough to cover his expenses.

The utility won’t disclose the amount of electricity received from the operation in the past year, citing its privacy policy for producers and consumers. GVEA official Dave Gardner, however, said the flow has been sporadic.

Karl also owns Chena Hot Springs Resort, which is powered by electricity from geothermal resources. Much of that technology also was unproven when it was installed, and Karl hopes his biomass system follow a similar path.

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