Sealaska ready to take heat on biomass

Pilot project a proving ground for Southeast biomass energy potential

Posted: Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sealaska corporate executives are banking on the sometimes-truth, "If you build it, they will come," by making a commitment to biomass as an energy source.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The company this month announced it will convert its Juneau headquarters from oil to a wood-fired boiler system. A stream of wood pellets will come from British Columbia until a regional provider can do it.

Sealaska's four-story building is too small to support the distribution system alone, so additional commercial building operators will have to follow Sealaska's example and convert to biomass heat for the economics to work out.

Banking on others seeing the benefits is a risk, Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris said.

"If you see me out there with a coal shovel next December you'll know something didn't work," Harris said.

Harris doesn't think the technology is risky - wood energy has been used in Europe for decades - but there's a risk in building the supply infrastructure when the demand side of the equation has yet to be filled.

The idea is to create a market large enough to support a wood-products maker in the region.

Viking Lumber, a medium-sized mill in Klawock, entered into an agreement with Sealaska in September of last year to explore the supply-demand question. Since then, others on Prince of Wales Island have expressed interest in making wood pellets.

But mill owners can't or won't invest in capital equipment required to make pellets without a demand for them, explained Sealaska Natural Resource Planner Nathan Soboleff.

"The whole spirit of this project is to create demand," he said.

Sealaska's building would burn a little less than 300 tons of pellets a year. A mill needs to sell about 20,000 tons to be successful in Southeast, Soboleff said the company's research shows.

That's a lot more wood. But a push by President Obama to use green energy in federal buildings has the U.S. Coast Guard interested in biomass for its base stations in Alaska.

A Coast Guard plan to convert buildings in Ketchikan, Sitka and Kodiak could generate demand for 10,600 tons of wood.

And now that Sealaska announced its project in Juneau, the Coast Guard is taking another look at converting Station Juneau on the downtown waterfront, said Bob Deering, the environmental and energy branch chief for the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit in Juneau.

Deering praised Sealaska's initiative.

"We hope it will inspire others to step forward as well so the necessary demand is created," he said.

Sealaska is the regional corporation for Southeast Natives and their descendants. The company is interested in biomass mainly because shareholders want it to make green practices a priority, Harris said.

On top of that, biomass creates a market for timber byproducts that could provide jobs in manufacturing and distribution.

Harris acknowledged a concern by conservation groups that biomass could create demand for the Tongass' prized timber, but he disagrees that is true. Biomass at the level needed to support one mill could be fueled by forest byproducts already being generated, he said.

Mills in the region currently produce 30,000 to 50,000 tons of wood byproduct such as sawdust and wood chips, Soboleff said Sealaska research found.

In other words, old-growth trees would not be cut down to heat buildings.

"That's like taking filet mignon and grinding it into hamburger," Harris said. "That's just not a good use of the forest."

Sealaska's will be the first commercial building in the state to convert to bio-energy. The boiler should be installed by next year.

The project is partially funded by a $510,000 Denali Commission grant.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquisat 523-2279 or by e-mail to kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.





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