Bernie Karl: Geothermal expert, king of renewables

His motto: 'Your trash is my cash'

Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009

ANCHORAGE - When Alaskans think of junk, recycling and renewable energy, many think of Bernie Karl.

Alaska Journal Of Commerce
Alaska Journal Of Commerce

"Karl is somewhat of an energy source of his own," said Will Johnson, a friend and admirer of Karl's ingenuity. "Bernie will go down in history as the first in Alaska to develop electricity from geothermal energy."

Over the years, Karl has built a mini-kingdom from other people's unwanted items. His motto: "Your trash is my cash." At his K&K Recycling 10-acre facility yard in North Pole, he stores such items as pipe and pipeline camps, as well as aging aircraft and steel beams.

"I even have my own missile," he said. "Everyone should have their own missile."

Years ago, Karl was hired to clean up a government Nike site, an anti-aircraft missile system used between World War II and the Cold War eras. The Army left behind a missile in the launch silo. Contracted to take everything out, Karl ended up with the memento.

He finds some interesting uses for many of his long-stored items. Insulated pipe previously used on North Slope oilfields was recycled to move hot water to turbines to power the facilities at his Chena Hot Springs Resort.

Chena Hot Springs is a world-class resort, but the 450-acre lot also is a proving ground for Karl's numerous and varied experiments. Karl has pioneered the use of geothermal energy at the Chena resort, located 56 miles east of Fairbanks.

In 2006, Chena and United Technologies Corp. brought online power plant technology using the geothermal-heated water found under the resort's lands and United's high-speed turbines to generate electricity.

The turbines develop 200 kilowatts of power, enough electricity to power the 44 buildings around the resort. Savings to the resort comes by not having to heat or light the resort in the winter, when temperatures routinely drop to minus 50 degrees.

Karl's dream is to eventually find hotter sources of geothermal water and use that for other generation projects so he can eventually produce enough electricity to put energy back into the Golden Valley Electric grid.

Karl recently received a grant to develop his idea. The Alaska Energy Authority gave a $2 million grant toward a $5 million project to produce 500 kilowatts of power.

Much like the Soviets' electrification project of the Cold War era, Karl's science compound at the resort is self-contained and for the most part self-supporting.

Chena Hot Springs has nursery greenhouses that are cooled in the summer and heated in the winter. The lettuce, tomatoes and onions grown there are used in the resort's restaurant.

Nearby, the Aurora Ice Museum features one of the world's most unique art galleries, including jousting knights, a fireplace and a bar. It is all made of ice that is cooled using electricity that is generated by the 160-degree water that comes out of a series of wells drilled on the property.

Chena is among the state's top tourist destinations.

One summer day, as visitors relaxed in a pool of hot water, a moose strolled up to take a drink from a nearby lake filled with algae. That lake is also a part of Karl's grand plan.

"This pool is growing a special type of algae that only grows in Alaska," said Karl. "It grows because of the amount of daylight and carbon dioxide emitted by other plants and animals, so it multiplies many times faster than other algae."

Karl explained one could start by taking 30 acres of pools with this type of algae. Cover them with greenhouses. Then pump in the carbon dioxide created from landfill trash (filtering out the bad gasses) into special furnaces that would heat the water and the greenhouses.

The algae would be energized to grow, while absorbing high concentrations of carbon dioxide.

Then, once the pools fill up, the algae can be harvested for its lipid oil.

That oil, in turn, could be distilled into a bio-fuel.

"This algae has 44 percent oil by volume, we refine the oil and make jet fuel," said Karl.

This idea would also reduce the cost of living to 90,000 other borough residents, as Karl would take their trash from the landfill that will be burned instead of paying to have it buried.

"This could create 250 new jobs. And we are going to do it," said Karl. "We have even picked out the spot at nine mile Richardson Highway."

Karl also recently showed that his oil-from-water separator not only works, but it can be used to produce energy as water is being extracted from nearly depleted oil wells with the oil going to a refinery and the energy producing electricity.

Karl can also work on a smaller scale. During the summer, a paddle wheel mounted under a steel girder bridge spins from the force of creek water. This is connected to an electric motor that has been modified to develop electricity in reverse, which recharges a series of 12-volt batteries that Karl uses to light his home at the resort.

"We are making food, growing tomatoes. We have experimented with 3,000 parts per million of CO2 that will allow us to grow 50 percent more food," he said. "This is not make believe, this is not hocus pocus. Now how can we make a statement like that? Because we are doing it, right here in Fairbanks, at Chena Hot Springs.

"My mother may have delivered an ugly kid, but didn't raise a stupid one," he said.

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