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CRAIG - A few small Prince of Wales Island towns are eyeing the wood scraps left by the island's sawmills to reduce their reliance on expensive fuel oil.
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Craig, population 1,100, is on the cusp of becoming the first Alaskan city to turn nuisance piles of chips, shavings and sawdust into a public source of energy.
In 2007, Craig plans to build a $1.4 million industrial wood-fired boiler to heat the town's swim center and its elementary and middle schools.
Thorne Bay may not be too far behind.
Much like Interior Alaska and other remote Southeast Alaska towns, Craig and Thorne Bay pay tens of thousands of dollars annually to ship in petroleum-based oil.
Dot Lake, another small community 40 miles northwest of Tok, has had success with wood-fired boilers to create a public school heating source. But Dot Lake's boiler is fueled with cordwood, rather than wood waste.
Communities with a low-cost supply of chips from sawmills potentially can save significant money by converting from oil to wood-fired boilers.
"It is pretty economic," said Tom Miles, owner of TR Miles, Technical Consultants, a biomass energy firm in Portland, Wash.
That's the major reason for the wood chip euphoria on Prince of Wales Island.
Craig and Thorne Bay have ready access to a large supply of wood waste from the island's numerous sawmills. The sawmills will have a new way to get rid of their waste, and "we're going to be reducing our costs substantially," said Craig City Administrator Jon Bolling.
"I've talked to two local mills. They are happy to work with us," Bolling added.
Craig city officials said last week they expect to spend $70,000 in the coming year to heat their swim center, which now relies on propane. Once the wood-fired boiler is operating, the heating cost would shrink to $30,000, depending on fuel prices, Bolling said.
The project made economic sense for the city's pools when the propane gas price was $1.72 per gallon. Propane is now selling in Craig at $1.92 per gallon.
The cost savings to the school district, which relies on diesel, could be more dramatic, on the order of 80 to 90 percent, Bolling said. Since planning for the project began, the price of diesel has doubled.
The large wood-fired boiler, which will burn wood to heat water, will be installed next to Craig's swim center, and will be linked to the town's elementary and middle schools across the street.
The operating costs will not change and the construction costs will be paid mainly with grants, with donors including the Denali Commission and U.S. Forest Service.
"It's certainly the sort of project we are interested in supporting," said Dennis Neill, spokesman for the Tongass National Forest.
"It fits in with our interest in timber restoration, utilization of wood waste and supporting communities," Neill said.
Neill noted much of Prince of Wales Island is in various stages of second growth after logging on federal, state and Native corporation land.
"There's the immediate wood pile and then small diameter stuff that will come in the future from thinning projects," Neill said.
The Thorne Bay school district and the Tongass National Forest's Thorne Bay ranger district are both considering converting from oil to wood-fired boilers. The ranger district would use wood scraps from Thorne Bay sawmills or other nearby sources of wood waste to heat its federal offices and residential areas, totaling 79,000 square feet.
"In my mind, it makes perfect sense," said Thorne Bay District Ranger Jason Anderson.
"Most of our facilities are already based on hot water," Anderson said. "I don't think you'd have to change anything but the fuel burner system. We could tie it in with our existing piping," he said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.