FAIRBANKS - When Bernie Karl surveys the bales of used cardboard and paper that are filling one of his warehouses at K&K Recycling, the Fairbanks businessman envisions a fuel source that will soon feed electricity into the local power grid.
That dream took a big step forward a few days ago, when fledgling programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright began providing a stream of recycled paper material to Karl's business along the Richardson Highway. He expects another of his business interests, Chena Power, will be ready by the end of the year to transform that garbage into electricity.
Karl plans to use new technology to make that happen - a 500 kilowatt biomass power plant that can burn woody biomass and recycled products from the landfill to make electricity.
"This is really a fun project," Karl said. "When we get done, it's going to be good for the community."
On Thursday, K&K Recycling began collecting recycled paper from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, along with the returns of a young recycling program on Fort Wainwright. He expects Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Greely to participate in the months ahead, providing a steady source of recycled biomass.
To make his project work, Karl needs to burn at least 5,000 tons of recycled paper, cardboard and wood per year. He said it's an achievable amount, since roughly 75 percent of garbage can be burned cleanly. Eventually he'd like to handle as much as 28,000 tons of recyclables annually.
He also envisions a process that will ultimately be almost emission free. By the end of 2011, Karl said, the carbon dioxide emissions from the process will be pumped into greenhouses to help grow vegetables and grow algae for biofuel production.
"We have enough recycled goods in the community," he said. "I'd like the community to be responsible for everything we touch."
Michele Hebert, the UAF sustainability coordinator, said the amount of waste paper produced at UAF alone is enormous and makes up a majority of the garbage generated on campus. She said a "test run" was attempted on Monday, and even that patchy effort recycled 1,000 pounds of waste paper in a single day.
Finding a source for recycled paper is a thrilling prospect for UAF, which has thrown away its waste paper for the past three years. Recycled paper used to be made into fuel pellets at Eielson Air Force Base, but a 2007 fire at the plant halted the program.
"The real exciting thing is we're now looking at our waste as a resource," Hebert said. "Now it's going to do something positive."
Karl said the experimental biomass power plant is being started with the help of a $2 million energy grant from the state. He said an additional $3 million of his own money is part of the investment, along with $750,000 from United Technologies, a company that develops high-tech products.
Karl said the generator can be expanded to as much as 2.5 megawatts if there's a large enough waste supply to power it. The electricity will be sold to Golden Valley Electric Association to feed the Interior's power grid.
GVEA spokeswoman Corinne Bradish said the electric cooperative is a big booster of Karl's efforts. GVEA members don't have a financial risk in the project, she said, and if successful it will add diversity to local electric sources.
"If there's another fuel to put into the mix, it's a win-win," Bradish said.
UAF officials are also happy with their stake in the program.
Hebert's salary as sustainability coordinator and some of the program funds are being paid for through a $20 per semester fee that UAF students approved in 2009. UAF is providing a match for those funds, providing about $400,000 per year for campus sustainability programs.
But Hebert said the paper recycling program won't require a big subsidy. UAF pays to deposit most of its garbage in the local landfill, and those funds will now be shifted toward the recycling program.
"In reality, it shouldn't cost money, it should save money," Hebert said. "It's a different way of handling the trash we already have."
In the future, Karl's plans go well beyond paper and cardboard. Crushed glass from local bottles will be used as a soil conditioner and for making engraved specialty mugs. He's also bringing in a Japanese inventor later this year who has developed a method for turning plastic back into oil. Bales of plastic bottles are being pressed for that project.
Karl said he's heard skepticism about some of his plans, but he's convinced much of it isn't happening simply because nobody has tried. He said his efforts at another of his businesses, Chena Hot Springs Resort, have proved many of those critics wrong. Cutting-edge geothermal technology provides the heat and electricity at the remote tourist destination.
"I think people are afraid to fail," Karl said. "You fail if you don't try."