Beating the Chill

By Anna Simet | December 06, 2013

Here’s a snapshot of the forecast in eastern North Dakota for the next week:

Friday: high -2° Fahrenheit , low -18°

Saturday: high -8°

Sunday: high 7°

Monday: high 0°

Tuesday: high 0°

Wednesday: high 0°

 In the spirit of ridiculously chilling weather, Biomass Magazine staff writer Chris Hanson visited with some veteran university biomass power plants in northern locations to discuss how they learned to deal with both new biomass facilities and wintry weather.

And of course, there are challenges. One being that storms—with zero visibility—can last for days, and if your fuel source is offsite, that can present some problems. Building storage facilities that last several days is one way to prevent that, but some just don’t have the space or money for that. In the case of University of Iowa, which uses some oat hulls and a wood chip/coal blend, fuel piles are outdoors, but are specially treated right before winter hits.

 From Hanson’s article:

“So far we haven’t experienced any abnormal pile heating problems,” Milster says, adding that moisture from the previous winter and spring has not significantly penetrated fuel piles. “The chips have weathered very well for a year and now we’re working on them.”

During the winter months, fuel is treated with a form of glycol to avoid issues with frozen fuel. More than a decade ago, the facility witnessed a frozen chunk of coal dislodge itself from a silo, causing significant damage to the structure. Since then, the facility begins treating the fuel with the glycol substance beginning in late November.

Hanson’s piece reminded me of a somewhat related article that I wrote last year about the fuel challenges Alaskan and extreme northern communities face. Fuel is extremely expensive to import and must be done with very precise timing because of very limited road systems. Most communities there are located along rivers, and heating oil comes in just once a year on barges.

An excerpt:

Fuel shipments are made in the middle of the summer after spring run-off, and there’s a narrow window of time for delivery. “During spring run-off there’s too much ice and debris in the river, but it also has to be done before the river’s dropped too low in the summer, because then the barges can’t get through,” Deerfield explains.

 If the delivery window is missed, emergency shipments must be sent in at a high price. “Last January, it [a heating oil shortage] happened, and they had to send in a shipment in by Russian tanker, accompanied by a U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker.” That occurred in the town of Nome, Alaska, where 1.3 million gallons of diesel and gasoline were delivered after the last scheduled barge shipment of fuel supplies was cancelled due to bad weather. It took the delivery team an entire month to get there in the winter.

In the worst cases, the fuel has to be flown in via cargo plane, which adds 50 cents to a dollar per gallon of fuel, according to Deerfield.

The prospect of shipping pellets upriver faces some of the aforementioned challenges, but is cost competitive—potentially cheaper—if certain parameters are right.

Oh, the joys of living in the North.

Watch for Chris Hanson’s online exclusive, “Combatting the Cold,” in the January issue of Biomass Magazine.