A plan to move away from oil-fired burners by the U.S. Coast Guard in Southeast Alaska could provide a spark for the region's foundering timber industry.
The projects in Ketchikan and Sitka would convert building heating systems to biomass boilers that burn wood chips, providing a local market for processed wood.
Southeast Alaska is the first place the Coast Guard has considered using biomass energy, said Robert Deering, environmental and energy branch chief for the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit Juneau. Last year's spike in oil prices partially drove the decision to support it, Deering said, but a new directive from the boss is another. President Obama signed an executive order this month that mandates environmentally friendlier federal buildings.
The Coast Guard is committed to buying wood chips in the region, so the projects would create a regional market for timber products and possibly create jobs, Deering said.
"The biofuels industry is in its infancy in Alaska right now, but in many parts of our country this is a mature industry generating local jobs using local resources," Deering said. "There's no reason we can't do the same thing in Alaska."
The only biomass plant in Southeast is in Craig, where wood waste from a mill is burned to heat municipal buildings.
The Coast Guard looked at Station Juneau on the waterfront downtown for a conversion to biomass and found the project too small to be feasible, Deering said.
"If there was a district biomass heating plant in the area of Station Juneau, we'd be very interested in tapping into it," Deering said.
Market-driven or driving the market?
Biomass heating systems are planned by the Coast Guard at Station Sitka and Base Support Unit Ketchikan, a 10-building complex. The two facilities burn 155,000 gallons of heating oil a year.
The Department of Energy is set to study the possibility of also converting the Kodiak Coast Guard base to biomass heat. Adding a Kodiak plant to the Southeast projects could offset 1 million gallons of oil a year for 17,000 tons of biomass fuel in Alaska, Deering said.
But before they can be built, the Coast Guard has to ensure it has a fuel supply.
The demand could encourage the timber industry in Southeast to convert mills to process wood chips, said Keith Rush, a forester for The Nature Conservancy who is working with the Coast Guard and timber harvesters on the supply question.
Rush said the Sitka and Ketchikan plants could be "proof of concept" projects on the Tongass, showing that there's the right level of supply and demand to make the deals financially feasible. It remains to be seen whether businesses can make money while consumers save by buying cheaper wood products instead of oil.
Rush said he's working with existing industry and entrepreneurs interested in biomass.
The demand also could support restoration projects, said Scott Snelson, a Forest Service fish, watershed and soils staff officer for the Tongass. The agency could sell trees it thins to improve wildlife habitat in stands that were previously clear-cut.
Sitka's move to renewables
In Sitka, the Coast Guard is getting into the wood business with multiple parties on Japonski Island, where Station Sitka is located. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium hospital, Mt. Edgecumbe High School, University of Alaska Southeast campus and the airport complex could join with the Coast Guard's Station Sitka in a central heating district fueled by biomass, collectively saving 450,000 gallons of heating oil. The parties have signed a memorandum of understanding.
The island consumes about a half-million gallons of fuel oil a year, but Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society, said the amount of wood needed to replace that shouldn't threaten the forest.
"We don't want to cut ecologically important forests to fuel buildings," Thoms said.
Thoms said he thought the project in Sitka would start small and grow as the supply and demand questions play themselves out.
Thoms said the Coast Guard biomass project is a part of the city's aggressive plan to convert to at least 85 percent renewable energy by 2028.
"The Coast Guard project isn't any one silver bullet solution; it's a component of an overall larger process we're figuring out here in Sitka," Thoms said.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.