The Next Biomass Hotbed

Southeast Alaska has problems with energy, and a plan to fix them with biomass
By Luke Geiver | April 03, 2012

Southeast Alaska is the Saudi Arabia of biomass, according to Nathan Soboleff, renewable energy coordinator for Sealaska. The region is not only in the middle of a 17-million-acre forest with rich biomass resources, but it also has huge potential that has been historically underutilized and untapped, according to Soboleff. But after the Alaska Energy Authority, which oversees statewide energy policy, issued the Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan (SEIRP), he might be happily mistaken about the region’s resources going unused.

Each section of the state has unique assets and opportunities, so the AEA released the SEIRP to take advantage of them, according to Rick Harris, executive vice president for Sealaska. By issuing the plan, the overarching critical issues pertaining to energy use in Southeast Alaska were addressed, he says. The plan found that although the region has access to hydroelectric power, many of the electricity consumers in need of that power are not close to the generation facilities, which increases the price of electricity. In addition, the region’s hydroelectric capacity is being maxed out by a lack of transmission lines and grid networks, as well as an overuse of electric heat in areas that are close to generation facilities and can receive their electricity cheaper than oil-based heat. In one instance, Soboleff says an entire school district is considering the conversion of several buildings to electric heat.

But Soboleff says that won’t happen if the biomass portion of the SEIRP comes to fruition. The report concluded that nearly 80 percent of all residential budgets are used up on space heating costs. The report also concluded that all 80 percent could be replaced by biomass-based thermal applications.

Over the next 20 years, Soboleff estimates that such an aggressive strategy to satisfy the region’s heating needs with wood pellets would create investments reaching $500 million. “We believe that half of that money would be needed within the next four to eight years,” he says, adding that it’s achievable.

Harris points out that although the report is more of a directional plan, it notes that biomass offers a viable, affordable and real solution. Soboleff agrees. “All great things start as a plan,” he says.

—Luke Geiver