North to Alaska

State’s potential to develop CHP systems hindered by the lack of a forestry industry.
By Lisa Gibson | November 23, 2010

Nearly half of the roughly 700,000 people who call Alaska home live in Anchorage. With the additional exceptions of Juneau and Fairbanks, the majority of the communities are rural with vast distances in between and some facing energy crises. Its layout makes the state a perfect candidate for community-scale combined-heat-and-power systems, but without an existing forest products infrastructure, developers have to start from scratch.

Dalson Energy is developing a 2-megawatt woody biomass gasification CHP project in Tok, Alaska, which has an isolated grid providing power for four small towns (including Tok) and not connected to any others, according to Thomas Deerfield, president of Dalson Energy. Deerfield calls the scenario a “perfect storm” because the load requirement is 2 MW and the town is surrounded by forests of small trees so dense it’s almost impossible to walk through, posing a severe wildfire risk.

That wildfire risk is a problem in numerous areas in the enormous state, as a robust forest products industry is nonexistent. “Wildfires are a huge problem up here,” Deerfield says. Ninety percent of Alaska’s paper mills have closed so no infrastructure exists for bringing timber or biomass out of the woods. “I would say one of the main challenges (in developing biomass projects) is there is no significant timber harvest industry anymore,” Deerfield says.

Allen Brackley, research forester with the Pacific Northwest Forest Experiment Station in Alaska, agrees. “Supplying biomass when you’ve got a robust forest industry is pretty simple business,” he says. But in some areas such as Sitka, the available amount of biomass is insignificant compared with the cost of harvesting equipment to source feedstock locally, he adds.

But not all the same problems exist throughout the diesel-dependent state. Some areas have little forestland and others simply would refuse to switch to biomass because their fuel oil prices are surprisingly low, such as in Anchorage. In addition, the willingness of landowners to harvest biomass varies and large chunks of the state’s woods are national forests. Another portion of the market is unable to make the switch to woody biomass because systems can’t be installed and there would be nowhere to store the biomass, Brackley explains. “You’ve got a series of different problems up here in Alaska,” he says.

Despite the challenges, both Brackley and Deerfield do acknowledge the potential for development in the state. “If you look at Alaska, we’ve got biomass coming out our ears,” Brackley says. “It’s about whether they’re willing to let you cut it or develop a plan to harvest.”

Deerfield says biomass heat in Alaska is “coming back in a big way,” with many projects under development and receiving assistance from the state and federal governments as well as regional Native corporations. He says he cannot identify one person in Tok who opposes his project there and he sees enormous potential for similar community-scale models all over the state, despite challenges in convincing some Alaskans to revert back to wood energy from the fossil fuels they’ve used for the past 50 years.

“Alaska is a harbinger of energy challenges in America, especially in rural areas where the needs are great and the scale is community and regional, not centralized and large-urban,” he says.