Chena Hot Springs Energy Fair 2013

Photo/Tim Bradner/AJOC

If you’re interested in energy, Bernie Karl’s Energy Fair at Chena Hot Springs, east of Fairbanks, is not to be missed.

Karl, owner of the hot springs resort with his wife, Connie, is an enthusiastic booster of thinking outside the box, on alternative energy and things like community self-sufficiency.

His annual energy fair, held for eight years now, is usually on a weekend in August, this year Aug. 18. It’s an excuse not just for Karl to show off the resort with its famous ice hotel and greenhouses that grow vegetables year-round, but the latest of his new developments in alternative energy.

This year it is a screw-expander device developed with a Chinese company that will expand the electricity output at the resort’s small geothermal power plant.

The fair is also an opportunity for Karl to corral politicians and get them further focused on energy issues. Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski typically attends the fair, and this year Rep. Don Young was there. Local elected officials, like Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins and state Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole, were there, too. Isaacson is co-chair of the House Energy Committee, and he encouraged other legislators to the event like Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage.

Besides developing the resort as a major visitor attraction Karl has become well-known for developing the first commercial application of power generation with warm water from geothermal sources. Most geothermal power is generated with hot water, which requires a big investment on a much bigger scale.

That Karl was able to do this at a small scale to supply power as well as heat for the resort buildings has brought a lot of attention, because there are many warm hot springs around Alaska that could become sources of power for local communities.

Building on what has been learned at Chena Hot Springs experience, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Center for Energy and Power is now working with private firm on a potential power project at Pilgrim Hot Springs near Nome. Other small communities with hot springs, like Elim on Norton Sound, are very interested.

Karl and his wife originally bought the resort from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority which, as a lender, had repossessed it after the previous owner went bankrupt.

Substantial investment in new buildings followed as well as vigorous marketing and promotion. Karl worked with Japan Airlines and other foreign carriers to bring tourists from Asia, and now Europe, to Chena Hot Springs. Mid-winter aurora-watching experience has become famous.

This year there are 19 charters bringing visitors to Fairbanks, most of them to Chena Hot Springs. That’s up from 14 charters last year. The resort does its own marketing in Asia to generate passengers for the airline charters, Karl said. In the beginning Chena Hot Springs had to make big financial commitments to the airlines to guarantee seats for the charters, but the gamble has paid off.

The generation of power with warm water (by geothermal standards) started in 2006 with the installation of a 400 kilowatt power plant built by United Technologies Corp.

The initial water temperature was 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which is just warm by geothermal standards, although a deepening of two geothermal wells serving the resort has now resulting in warmer water being produced, which improves efficiency.

What has attracted attention is that the geothermal power allowed Karl to reduce his cost of electricity from 30 cents per kilowatt hour to 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

Chena Hot Springs has long been known and has been a recreation spot for Fairbanks for decades. The springs were first discovered in 1904 and buildings and cabins for recreational use were built and operating by 1912. Eventually a road was built.

Today the last 30 miles of the Chena Hot Springs road is through the state’s Chena River Recreation Area, which is essentially a state park, so a visitor gets a feel of wilderness long before arriving at the resort, at the end of the road.

09/19/2013 - 10:24am