Sealaska switches boiler system to pellet power

Posted: Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sealaska is bringing a renewable energy into Alaska, starting with Sealaska Plaza. The building has been outfitted with a wood-pellet boiler system that replaces its oil-based system.

"There's been a large push to have renewable energy throughout the region," said Sealaska Executive Vice President Richard Harris. "One source is biomass heating."

All offices in the building will be completely converted to the renewable heat source, which will fire up Nov. 8 and be commissioned the following day.

Wood pellets are a renewable energy source made from condensed sawdust and wood chips, essentially byproducts of other wood manufacturing products. Sealaska's renewable energy coordinator Nathan Soboleff described it as "using a product that used to be discarded."

They are constructed at high pressures, making the pellets very dense. As there are no glues or additives, the pellets are completely combustible without waste, plus the density produces little ash because there is little moisture. Soboleff said this prevents visible emissions from the smokestack. He said it produces little ash that flows into an ash container that only needs to be emptied up to 12 times a year.

"The best use of wood is producing heat, not electricity," Soboleff said. "The nature of a wood pellet leads itself to an easy heating system because they flow easily and can automatically feed into a boiler system. That makes it user-friendly."

Harris said the new system will burn 280 tons of wood pellets a year, replacing 35,000 gallons of heating oil a year.

Soboleff described how this demonstrates wood pellets as a cost-saving measure for heat as well. Soboleff said buying a ton of pellets at $300 is equivalent to buying heating oil at $2.52 a gallon on a per million BTU basis. Since heating oil sells at more than $3 a gallon, this would result in a significant cost savings, he said.

He added no one in Southeast Alaska has paid $2.52 per gallon of heating oil in at least five years.

In rural areas, the cost of oil can be much more. Harris cited a school in Kake that spends more than $4 a gallon.

"The cost of burning wood over oil the payback may be in as little as four or five years," Harris said, noting that depends on the amount used.

He said Sealaska's own saving estimate is $1 million within 25 years.

Plans for the conversion have been in the works for about a year, and construction began Sept. 1. Synergy Systems, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sealaska, acted as construction managers for the project, supervising and bringing together all the technical advisors and other personnel for each aspect. Harris said he's particularly proud that the construction was overseen by a Sealaska subsidiary.

Synergy's construction manager, Sam Bergeron, said it's about 85 percent complete with all the major systems in place. He said it was a simple conversion from the oil-burning system.

The new system was helped by an emerging energy technology grant from the Denali Commission. The grant is for implementing existing viable technologies in Alaska.

One of the grant's conditions is the heating system serve as a research and development project for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The university has installed monitors and will evaluate the system, including costs and emissions, as it goes, making all of the reports public.

"We call it a marquee project because it's here in the capital and right near the legislature and it's all very visible, very public," said Harris.

The idea is that Sealaska will serve as a model for other companies plus homes to convert to wood pellets for heat.

Soboleff said wood pellet energy is a new entity in Alaska and is still rare in North America, yet has been used in Europe for more than 30 years. As such, the technology for the system already existed so nothing had to be invented. He said this helped Sealaska prove it was a viable and economically feasible alternative.

Harris said by implementing the system here, other buildings can use those designs for their own buildings and even personal homes.

He said the idea is already getting around and the Federal Building in Ketchikan is working with a contract for biomass energy, specifically for wood pellet burning.

Another step toward the Alaska introduction is the bulk delivery system for wood pellets for commercial-sized buildings.

As there are no bulk wood pellet dealers in Southeast Alaska, Sealaska sells pellets by the ton. Harris said he hopes the idea will lead to more sellers here.

Bergeron said there is interest in making a small pellet mill in Ketchikan.

Soboleff said a home using wood pellets would purchase them in 40-pound bags rather than bulk.

Harris said the board of directors has been wanting the company to head toward a green initiative, which initiated the process toward wood pellet burning. He said part of that initiative is to create new sustainable energies.

"We said someone ought to put one of these systems in and decided 'Gee, it ought to be us,'" he said.

Sealaska will maintain its hydro boiler as a backup system.

Soboleff said he provides information on renewable energy solutions. He can be reached at 586-9278.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at

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