In a recent borough memo, public facilities director Ed Coffland said the Haines biomass boiler project isn’t economical, that the cost of purchasing wood chips is more than buying fuel oil. Coffland recommended to the borough manager that the government should not proceed with the project. In response, the borough assembly at its Jan. 28 meeting scheduled a town hall meeting in early March to discuss the issue.

Project proponents say Cofflands’s analysis is too shallow. It leaves out the net savings after operating costs are factored in. It doesn’t consider the value that creating a local wood-chip market would bring to the local economy or the long-term benefit of becoming more energy independent by displacing fossil fuels with local timber for heat.

“There’s no reason why this couldn’t work here. But you have to be willing, as a community, to agree there’s a value in it that’s beyond the dollars and cents, at the end of the day,” Haines state forester Greg Palmieri told the CVN.

The borough has about $1 million in available grant funding for a biomass boiler that’s estimated to cost a total of $2.5 million. The project at its largest scope would heat the school, pool, library, administration building, and the school’s vocational education building. It would displace 40,000 gallons of fuel oil and save the borough $45,000 including operations and maintenance of the boiler compared to the fuel oil system, according to a report by Wisewood Energy, the company contracted to design a biomass boiler system.

Wisewood’s savings estimate includes locally manufactured chips that cost $95 per ton, assuming the borough purchased and then leased a wood chipper to an interested party. The borough lost a grant to buy a chipper when it learned it couldn’t lease the machine to a third party. Not including the defrayed cost of purchasing a chipper, Palmieri said he analyzed local logging costs and the cost of running the Tok woodchipper and came up with $85 per ton to make locally made chips. Tok pays about $65 per ton when purchasing chips for its boiler, and Craig pays $30 for chips from Viking Lumber on Prince of Whales.

Palmieri has tracked biomass boiler projects across the region in towns including Craig, Coffman Cove, Thorne Bay and Tok. Palmieri’s vision of biomass heat includes that of becoming more energy independent and growing a local industry by harvesting local timber from the Haines State Forest that a private company would chip in town.

“We have a sustainable resource that’s available in the Haines State Forest that’s unrealized,” Palmieri said. “We wouldn’t have to surpass the annual allowable cut to make something like that realistic. We need to do anything we can to get off as much fossil fuels as we possibly can.”

Displacing that fossil fuel is an argument also embraced by Renewable Energy Alaska Project STEM educator Clay Good. His organization is interested in food security and sustainable economies in Southeast. He cited Tok and Southeast Island School District communities who use their biomass boiler systems to help heat greenhouses used to grow food eaten by students in their school lunches.

“We have expensive food and expensive energy both for the same reason: the cost of the energy,” Good said.

Tok’s biomass coordinator Tony Lee cited the “ancillary effects” burning biomass has on his community including the school’s greenhouse, heated with excess heat from the boiler, that not only grows salads and other vegetables, but is used as a classroom.

“We (grow) a lot of snap peas, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and cucumbers,” Lee said. “We do agricultural classes and they come out and do planting, weeding, pH tests, soil tests and watering.”

Good also disputes another argument against biomass, that Haines’ wood is too wet. Tok burns wood that has about a 20 percent moisture content. Haines’ wood is closer to 45 percent. Wisewood says the boiler it proposes can handle wood that has a 50 percent moisture content.

“To say it’s too wet to use is to overlook the technologies that have been created in the last ten years to address moisture content,” Good said.

But the wetter the wood, the more wood needs to be burned to create heat. Burning carbon-based fuel for energy is why Lynn Canal Conservation executive director Jessica Plachta said the project “doesn’t make the grade.”

Plachta said they’d rather the borough seek options for clean energy that “don’t require burning anything” and that burning wood still results in harmful emissions.

“It’s somewhat ironic that in a state that is the hardest hit by climate change that we are still looking at combustion for heat and power when there are other cleaner sources available,” said LCC president Eric Holle.

Plachta pointed to Partnership for Policy Integrity data that shows that burning biomass at a papermill in Wisconsin for electricity produces more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels. But burning biomass for heat is about 75 to 80% efficient compared to electricity generation which is roughly 20 to 25% efficient, according to the Biomass Energy Resource Center. In a report, the center says while burning biomass for electrical generation can overtax the energy potential of U.S. timber resources, biomass use at a small scale is sustainable.

“The most energy efficient use for biomass in general is thermal energy at the community scale, where local wood resources are produced and used to provide local energy, fueling the local economy, and at heat-led (heat or heat-led) operations of a scale that can be accommodated by the resource,” the report states.

Critics also say that biomass isn’t carbon neutral, as some proponents contend. But that “depends on the time frame being studied, what type of biomass is used, the combustion technology, which fossil fuel is being replaced…and what forest management techniques are employed in the areas where the biomass is harvested,” according to a report from The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Southeast Conference biomass coordinator Karen Peterson said while it’s true wood is a carbon-based fuel than will generate emissions, Haines is currently burning a lot of unsustainable fuel oil to heat its public buildings. “I can’t win the argument (about biomass being carbon neutral), but in my mind, I think fossil fuels are not sustainable. We can say “We should open ANWR or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling because we need that oil.” My whole reason for promoting wood heat is so we don’t have to do that.”

Lee said Tok has displaced about 60,000 gallons of fuel each year since using biomass, which unlike the system proposed for Haines, is used to produce electricity and heat. They purchase chips from local suppliers and make their own.

While Haines doesn’t have a chip manufacturer, Palmieri said the borough could purchase chips from a Yukon supplier, an option that was left out of the borough’s analysis, until a local timber operator fills the demand. Prices of chippers vary, but the borough had planned to spend $110,000 before it lost its grant. Yukon logging company Bear Creek Logging purchased its chipper for around $150,000 in 2017, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report.

Wisewood’s Meagan Hartman said as recently as September 2019, Bear Creek Logging expressed interested in supplying Haines with chips. A company representative told the CVN while that he can’t give a precise price until he knows the woodchip specifications, he sells chips to Whitehorse for about $112 U.S. dollars per ton.

Palmieri said local chips could be made from wood waste left over after logging operations, the tops of trees too small in diameter for lumber, or slab waste, the outer curved sections of trees that are cut off at mills. Palmieri said that the amount of woodchips required to heat the buildings each year, three to 10 acres worth, could be chipped with the waste that’s already being logged each year.

“It’s a minuscule amount. We have an annual allowable cut that’s 347 acres,” Palmieri said. “The local operators aren’t capable of doing a larger volume. We’re barely 15 percent of what our allowable cut would be.”

Holle said while the estimated acreage is “fairly small potatoes” compared to 6,000-acre clear cuts, he worries creating a woodchip market is a slippery slope toward expanded logging operations.

Craig city administrator Jon Bolling said their biomass boiler heats their aquatic center, which includes three pools and a fitness room, along with their middle and elementary school. Bolling said some in the community were initially concerned about emissions near the school. City officials traveled down south to see how a biomass boiler worked in a Montana community.

“We didn’t want particulate matter or smoke around the school. I didn’t want parents calling me and saying ‘My kids have asthma.’ That would be a disaster. I had kids in school, too,” Bolling said. “We don’t see a perpetual blue haze of smoke out of the stack. It comes out what appears like a white effluent. It looks like a lot of steam. We haven’t had problems with odor or particulate matter in the air at all.”

Petersen advocates for biomass projects across the region, and has been monitoring Haines dialogue. She argues communities everywhere should use the resources they have for clean energy. Californians can harness the sun. Aleutian communities can use wind. Southeast Alaska can use its forests, Petersen said.

“The community of Haines has to make its own decision,” Petersen said. “It’s not an easy or light one to make. You want to keep paying for fossil fuels? That can happen. It’s definitely easier to do that. It’s easier not to change.”

Holle said there are other options for Haines, such as geothermal energy, that should be considered. “If the borough just wants to have this small-scale thing, I’m not going to die on my sword over that, but before embracing the first thing to come along, it’s better to shop around a little bit.”

The biomass project is the only alternative energy source that’s under consideration in the Haines Borough. A town hall is scheduled for March 9 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the project.

*This story has been updated to reflect a scheduling change.