PETERSBURG — Southeast Alaska biomass experts believe that the low price of oil shouldn’t put wood heat projects on the chopping block.
When the price of diesel remained higher than $4 a gallon, wood-fired boilers were sold as a relatively cheap heating option for public buildings in Southeast.
The campaign to promote wood heat has been successful in Southeast — especially in the Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island areas — as all levels of government, tribal governments and private enterprise invest millions of dollars into biomass projects.
Biomass is now being explored as a diesel alternative in communities from Ketchikan to Yakutat. For diesel-dependent communities like Kake, which has relied entirely on diesel for heat and power generation, biomass is being explored as a viable alternative to petroleum.
But biomass conversions have had their problems in Ketchikan and other communities. The most recent projects, including the Ketchikan International Airport, have been touted as refined, efficient heating systems.
At the annual meeting of Southeast Conference in Petersburg, a panel of biomass experts said on Tuesday that biomass projects are still relevant after the crash in oil prices partly on the grounds that oil will eventually rebound.
However, one panelist said that, based on cost alone, biomass can no longer compete with diesel heat.
Tuesday was heavy on energy for Southeast Conference, with discussions about state funding for energy projects, how communities are innovating with energy production and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s energy bill in Congress.
The biomass panel included Karen Petersen, a Thorne Bay resident and community development agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service; Robert Deering, biomass coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, and Meagan Nuss, project development coordinator with Oregon-based biomass engineering firm Wisewood.
Both Petersen and Deering are involved with grant programs benefiting biomass projects.
Deering said point-blank that many wood-heat projects no longer make financial sense.
“There is just no way that these projects can compete with oil if you’re only looking at it from a cost standpoint,” he told the audience. “…This is headwind for all of our projects, and I don’t know the solution other than to hope the price of oil goes up.”
So why continue to pursue biomass?
Petersen said that rural communities, which represent a large portion of those considering biomass, still pay a hefty price for oil, and the global price of oil will eventually rebound.
“Wood still pencils out,” she said.
Meanwhile, Petersen touted the local economic development benefits of biomass if the wood comes from Southeast.
The Ketchikan International Airport and other Ketchikan customers buy their wood pellets from Tongass Forest Enterprises, which produces them in Ward Cove.
On Prince of Wales, many communities have turned to cord wood, which requires local jobs to harvest and cut for boilers. In the past decade, almost every community on the island has adopted some form of biomass project — many of them through the Southeast Island School District, which pairs biomass boilers with greenhouses at its schools.
In Klawock, Viking Lumber began compressing sawdust waste into “biobricks,” which can be substituted for cord wood. Smaller saw mills on the island have since followed suit and sell their own bricks.
Farther north, communities use a mix of chips, pellets and cord wood, most of which is harvested from Southeast Alaska.
While the economics won’t make sense for some projects at the moment, Petersen said, the mix of local jobs and the long lives of the boilers mean biomass is here to stay.
Darsie Culbeck, a wood-heat consultant in biomass-happy Haines, put it another way when he spoke about Haines after the panel.
“We can keep our local heating dollars in town,” Culbeck said of biomass. “… Basically, whenever we want to heat the school up (with diesel) we write a check to Seattle and send our money away. Our goal is to do what we can locally. We have the Haines State Forest, which is great. It’s just sitting there waiting for us to use some of that resource to make heat for our town.”
• This story first appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News. It is republished here with permission.