Biomass Bag finalist in Alaska competition

By Ryan C. Christiansen
Web exclusive posted Feb. 27, 2009, at 11:44 a.m. CST

Peter Olsen, the owner of Kodiak Wood Fuels in Kodiak, Alaska, has an idea a Biomass Bag for transporting wood chips and other woody biomass across shallow rivers. The idea is a finalist in the 2009 Alaska Marketplace competition, an event sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The Biomass Bag is a reusable bag for transporting woody biomass. The bag uses the natural lower density of wood and also captured air to float the biomass across shallow waters, such as rivers in late summer. "If you've been rafting down a river or have been out on the ocean, you can stick your sleeping bag in a little yellow bag, roll the end up on it and snap it shut and, most of the time, it stays dry," Olsen said. "If you increase that concept roughly by about 100, you're getting close to getting your brain around what I've got here."

Olsen said using bags increases the handling and transportation efficiency of moving woody biomass from the source to the consumer. Using durable bags that can be tied together and float eliminates the need for expensive barge transportation systems for transporting the biomass and also removes the need for handling smaller pieces of bulk biomass at various points along the way.

Bags can more easily be transferred from truck to river and back to the truck. "We can put these bags right in the water, transport them to the community, and pull them out and deliver them without re-handling [the biomass]," Olsen said. "Then you just roll them up and throw them in your boat and go back for more.

"This is not rocket science, but it is stuff that has to work on a day-in and day-out basis," Olsen continued. "We're talking about a system that has to work [where] you can't afford barges and tugboats and all of that happy stuff. There are shallow waters and so forth there that are difficult to get in and out of, sometimes. Plus, the economics of having that kind of hardware up there is not in the cards. At the end of the day, the cost on a per-British thermal unit basis (has to be competitive)."

Olsen said the idea for the Biomass Bag grew out of the need to find an alternative, renewable energy source for the hundreds of bush villages in Alaska. "The interior of Alaska has the highest energy costs in North America," Olsen said, "and they have the economy that can least afford it. Not everybody likes to put it this way, but I'm a little more blunt than a lot of folks: I think at least 50 percent of these communities are at risk of (dying). They are largely subsistence communities, but if their food and energy costs exceed what they have, then those communities are not going to live. We're talking a heating oil cost of $7 to $10 per gallon in a subsistence community."

Olsen used the villages along the Yukon River as an example of where the Biomass Bag might be useful. "The Yukon River is 2.5 miles wide right across from Fort Yukon," he said, "and a lot of their forest resources are on the other side of the river, (and) on the last 200 miles of the Yukon River, for example, there are a number of small communities that don't have biomass as an alternative fuel for heat-but some of their relatives upriver do. If you can build a bigger bag to transport more of it further distances to communities (that need it), that's the part that is exciting to me."

For now, the Biomass Bag is just an idea, but Olsen said he hopes the Alaska Marketplace competition can help to bring the idea to fruition. "Right now, I'm folding up tarps in my living room and taking some duct tape and attaching rings here and there and looking at how to do this," Olsen said. "We are at the very earliest stages of this thing. I've got to get it out of my brain and get it into the hands of some folks who can help put this thing together."

The Alaska Marketplace competition is modeled after The World Bank's Development Marketplace. Olsen must now prepare an implementation plan for his idea, which will be judged by a group of private and public sector professionals at the Alaska Marketplace competition event which will be held this spring. Olsen's idea will be evaluated on innovation, sustainability, and profitability, as well as the idea's ability to reduce poverty, create jobs, and preserve cultural heritage. The winners will be awarded funding and will receive entrepreneurial training and implementation coaching to develop and implement their business plans and ideas.

"The whole system concept is bigger than what the Marketplace will be able to fund," Olsen said, "but I thought, well, what the heck. Let's get started."