Wood energy becoming more popular

Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009

For the Bethel region of Alaska, the heating fuel of the future might be a throwback to the past.

Businesses and organizations there, including Bethel's city government, are increasingly turning to firewood in an effort to replace the costly heating fuel that often exceeds $6 a gallon.

They're getting the wood any way they can get in the often treeless Southwest Alaska region.

At Swanson's grocery store, employees cut pallets into kindling and toss cardboard boxes into the Turbo Burn, a self-contained heating system that incinerates the store's packaging castoffs and converts them into heat for the store.

Store employees are also throwing used cooking oil from the store's deli to feed the beast.

The Turbo Burn already appears to be saving Swanson's a "good bit" of money by reducing the store's dependence on heating fuel, said Pat Jennings, maintenance supervisor.

Just how much?

Jennings couldn't say.

The contraption, enclosed in a 20-foot-long metal van that sits outside the store, began operating late last year after arriving from Turbo Burn Inc's headquarters in Spokane, Wash.

It hasn't faced a long stretch of cold temperatures yet, so it's difficult to say exactly how much it will save, he said.

"We have to a have a full season on this to really shake it out," he said.

During the coldest months in recent years, the store spent hundreds of dollars a day on heating fuel, he said.

The Turbo Burn, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, also reduces the store's cost of tossing away trash at the landfill.

The city is thinking about buying its own Turbo Burn to heat the Public Works building, using wood, paper and cardboard collected at the city's recycling center, said city manager Lee Foley.

The building costs tens of thousands a year to heat, he said.

The Bethel city council recently passed a resolution directing city staff to apply for a grant from the Alaska Energy Authority up to $105,000 to pay for the Turbo Burn unit, as well as shipping and installation costs.

The Association of Village Council Presidents has its own effort in the works to sell firewood at rock-bottom rates to residents across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

The program will use wood harvested from the Tongass National Forest under a federal effort to thin the forest, said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.

The state Legislature used leftover grant funds to give the nonprofit $460,000 last year for 2,200 of cords of wood, enough to heat some 200 homes a year, said Hoffman.

By selling the wood, the Native regional nonprofit would replenish the "seed money," allowing the program to continue indefinitely, Hoffman said.

It would cut the cost of heating in half for many villages, he said.

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