September 13, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 37

Borough expands pellet heat dream

Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie Scott has said she wants at least one municipal building heated with wood in her lifetime.

The borough assembly supersized Scott’s dream Tuesday, approving a renewable energy grant request for money to install wood-pellet boilers in the Haines School’s voc-tech building, swimming pool, Human Resources building, Visitor’s Center and borough offices.

The amount of the request will be determined before it’s submitted to the Alaska Energy Authority in two weeks.

Darsie Culbeck, the borough manager’s executive assistant, said pellet boilers could cut fuel bills by one third, reduce the town’s carbon footprint and spur local investment in the region’s potential pellet industry.

At the scale of the borough’s grant request, Haines would likely become the leader in Southeast for investing in the technology, according Bob Deering, a pellet booster and civil engineer for the Coast Guard. The Guard recently installed three pellet boilers at its Sitka Air Station and is looking to install them elsewhere, he said.

The borough wants to put a $30,000 pellet system – including a pellet storage silo – into the Senior Center by November. It would serve as a test of the new technology. Funding for the project would come from the remains of a legislative grant for the building.

Deering and Culbeck are critical of a $25,000 study by engineer Jim Rehfeldt that in June found that pellets wouldn’t be cheaper than oil at several facilities, including borough offices, the voc-tech building, and swimming pool.

They say Rehfeldt compared existing, single-boiler, oil-burning systems to a pellet-fired boiler with an oil-burning boiler for backup, and that two boilers are simply more expensive than one.

“(Rehfeldt’s) contention that a single boiler can’t effectively meet 100 percent of the heating needs for the buildings is not consistent with what the manufacturers are stating, backed by thousand of installations configured in exactly that fashion, both in the U.S. and extensively in Europe,” Deering wrote to Mayor Scott.

Engineers for the two sides didn’t agree during a recent, four-hour discussion of the issue.

Rehfeldt’s firm maintains that a second boiler is prudent for government buildings, given that pellet boilers require more maintenance and are new technology.

Deering acknowledged this week the Coast Guard’s pellet boilers will have back-up boilers. He suggested the borough could put in electric back-ups for its pellet boilers, or a portable, oil boiler that attaches to special building fittings.

Culbeck said the borough might look at a portable back-up. In the event of a problem with pellets, a Toyo-style heater could be installed quickly in a building like the Senior Center, he said.

If the Senior Center pellet project doesn’t pan out, the borough could return grant money to AEA, Culbeck said.