Sealaska Corp., the Alaska Energy Authority and U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory are evaluating the feasibility of designing, constructing and operating an ethanol manufacturing facility in Southeast Alaska.
The facility would convert wood residues, such as bark, sawdust and other wood that is unsuitable for manufacturing or is being sent to community landfills, into a value-added product.
Ethanol, a renewable energy source, is used as a fuel additive to improve air emissions from automobiles and is an octane booster. The ethanol facility would also produce other valuable byproducts such as electrical energy. The $45 million facility would produce 6 million gallons of ethanol annually, creating 80 direct jobs and 120 indirect jobs in the Southeast region.
Alaska imports, annually, over 4 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol for use as an oxygenate additive in Anchorage gasoline. Unlike MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), which raised substantial health concerns among the residents of Anchorage and Fairbanks, ethanol is well-accepted as a means of meeting Clean Air Act goals and reducing carbon monoxide air emissions from vehicles.
During the last decade, Southeast Alaska experienced a substantial loss of jobs in the wood products industry due to land management decisions in the Tongass National Forest, changes in the global market and other factors. Forest product utilization has been an essential component of the Southeast Alaska economy for over 40 years, and historically accounted for nearly one-third of the region's overall economy.
The economic impacts of the decline in the Tongass National Forest timber industry continue to have dramatic adverse effects on the region's population, employment and income. Forest industry officials, the public and government regulators agree that the industry must develop profitable value-added uses of lower-grade timber and other wood residues (e.g. bark, sawdust and other wood waste) in order to be competitive on a long-term basis.
The intent of the proposed plant is to produce a product that will help Alaska communities meet Clean Air Act standards, creating value from wood waste and residue -- industry by-products that are currently an expense and environmental management disposal concern for every business that manufactures wood products.
Producing ethanol provides an alternative, and environmentally friendly, method of managing wood residue and providing value recovery from these underutilized fiber sources. In addition the conversion of wood into ethanol is beneficial in reducing the effects of global warming by recycling one of the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide. If continuing studies prove that ethanol production is feasible, Sealaska projects that construction could start in the next three years.
We are currently working with Merrick & Co. of Denver to evaluate the various wood-to-ethanol conversion technologies and to identify the one that is most suitable to our conditions in Southeast Alaska. There is no current market for wood waste and by manufacturing ethanol we propose to create economic opportunity and jobs while maximizing the value we realize from our forest resources.
Robert W. Loescher is the president and CEO of Sealaska Corp.