Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Borough in line for switch to pellet heat


The Haines Borough has cleared a major hurdle toward realizing its goal of converting its public facilities from oil-fueled boilers to wood pellet burners.

The Alaska Energy Authority recently recommended the borough’s biomass project, which will convert 10 public buildings from oil boilers to ones burning pellets, be funded with $1.2 million in grant money from its Renewable Energy Fund.

Sean Skaling, AEA’s deputy director for alternative energy and energy efficiency, said the funding isn’t final yet. “We make the AEA’s recommendation to the legislature and they are the ones that ultimately fund, so it’s not a done deal yet,” Skaling said.

Gov. Sean Parnell’s budget includes $20 million for the Renewable Energy Fund, however, meaning that if the legislature accepts the recommendation, the grant will be fully funded. The grant would cover design and construction, including materials.

Skaling said it is looking like the project will be completely funded, and executive assistant to the manager Darsie Culbeck – who wrote the grant – shared Skaling’s optimism. “Everyone seems to be pretty confident it should stay funded,” Culbeck said.

As part of the grant, the borough has to contribute about $137,000 in matching funds.

The 10 buildings set to be converted are the school/pool complex, sewer treatment plant, Chilkat Center, public safety building, library, old city shop, new city shop, water treatment plant, Haines School vocational building and Sheldon Museum.

The scale of the investment would put Haines at the forefront of Alaska municipalities pursuing pellet technology and also would defy the borough’s only engineering study of the idea to date.

The first buildings to be converted will be the school/pool complex followed by the sewer treatment plant, said interim manager Julie Cozzi.

Conversion of the 10 buildings is expected to save the borough $4 million over the next 20 years, she said.

Culbeck, in addition to writing the grant, has championed the use of wood pellets and worked intensively on getting the pilot-program pellet boiler installed at the Haines Senior Center in November 2012.  

“The senior center told us the technology works. We’ve had it for over a year, and we haven’t had any problems with it. It has done what it is supposed to do,” Culbeck said.

Since pellets are cheaper than oil, the conversion will begin to save money outright, Culbeck said. But besides cost savings, Culbeck said the project will also cut emissions and mitigate environmental liability.

Culbeck said he hopes to have the first boiler up and running at the school by this time next year. The school will retain its oil boiler as a back-up, as will some of the bigger buildings, like the Chilkat Center.

The smaller buildings, which likely won’t retain their oil boilers, will be serviced by a portable oil boiler if a pellet boiler breaks down or needs maintenance, Culbeck said.

“We are also, as part of the grant, designing a portable trailer with an oil boiler on it. Any buildings that we take the oil boiler out of, we will have an outdoor space so we can zoom over there with the trailer and plumb it in,” Culbeck said.

AEA’s Skaling said the project scored highly during the evaluation process, which ultimately ranked hundreds of applications for renewable energy projects proposed throughout the state. In terms of technical and economic feasibility, the project excelled, and the cost/benefit ratio (1.72) was also a large factor in the application’s high ranking, Skaling said.

Biomass projects like the installation of pellet boilers are gaining popularity throughout the state, and the AEA’s biomass program has grown substantially in the last several years, Skaling said.

Robert Venables, energy coordinator for Southeast Conference, was in Kake this week talking to community representatives about the municipality’s push to install pellet boilers in the senior center and school.

Juneau, Ketchikan, Prince of Wales, Sitka and other communities around Southeast have already invested in this technology, Venables said, though not to the scale of 10 buildings.

“Haines was already ahead of the curve. They put some of their own money into getting one started (at the senior center), instead of waiting for grant money and finding out that these things do pay for themselves,” Venables said.

Venables said the installation of the boilers would create demand for a local wood pellet production plant, a project the Chilkoot Indian Association is currently examining the logistics of.

A feasibility study commissioned by the borough and conducted by energy engineer Jim Rehfeldt of Alaska Energy Engineering in 2012 advised against installing pellet boilers in Haines public facilities due to high maintenance costs.

Wood systems require “considerably more maintenance” than oil burners and last about half as long as oil-burning ones, Rehfeldt reported.

“The prudent course of action is to wait and see how this energy source plays out over time,” Rehfeldt said.

But Venables and borough staff say maintenance of the senior center pellet boiler has proven to be on par with the oil boiler.

“It hasn’t been any more costly to the borough,” Culbeck said.

“For the most part, if you are installing the right units and they are installed correctly, you don’t have emissions issues and they have proven to be low maintenance,” Venables said.

Mayor Stephanie Scott said she challenged the results of Rehfeldt’s study that warned against high maintenance costs, and is confident the conversion to wood pellet heat is in the best interest of Haines in the long term.

“I think it will put Haines on the map,” she said.

At last week’s official opening of the Chilkoot Indian Association, Scott noted that the building is heated solely by wood pellets.

“The government has the capacity to set an example. We want to create the demand for a pellet mill,” Scott said.

Culbeck also said he doesn’t see any risk in the conversion. “I’m not concerned about failure. It’s possible the price of oil will go down and we don’t save as much money as we thought.... but I don’t think that failure is really an option.”

“I don’t even have one concern,” Scott added. “I have a sigh of relief we’re finally moving forward. Next, solar panels.”