Wood biomass project to power Tok appears promising

Alaska Power & Telephone’s feasibility study for a wood biomass plant in Tok should be finalized by the end of November, Thomas Deerfield, project coordinator, said, and the initial findings for the proposal look promising.

Deerfield owns Dalson Energy, an Anchorage-based energy consulting firm that specializes in the use of wood biomass energy systems.

Wood biomass systems traditionally burn wood harvested as a renewable fuel to power a boiler system, which transfers heat through steam to warm individual buildings, Deerfield explained.

The proposed project will use a combined heat and power, or CHP, plant to generate electricity for Tok and the surrounding area. Alaska Power & Telephone, or AP&T, now operates a diesel-fired power plant in Tok.

“The bottom line is that technically, operationally and financially, it’s positive. Everything is going to look good. It’s going to be a viable project,” Deerfield said.

The current cost of power in Tok is unsustainable, he said.

“Fifty cents a kilowatt-hour is slowly strangling the life out of Tok, Tetlin, Tanacross and Dot Lake,” Deerfield said. “The status quo is not viable. We’ve established that in our feasibility study.”

Some residents are paying in excess of $400 every month for electricity, he said. The high price of power in the area has caused what Deerfield called “demand destruction.”

AT&P’s Tok facility presently burns roughly 750,000 gallons of diesel per year to produce up to two megawatts of electricity at peak production, Deerfield said. In the past the plant burned upwards of a million gallons fuel to meet power demands.

“If your product is so expensive it doesn’t matter if people need it or not, they will cut back, and that’s exactly what’s happened,” Deerfield said.

Bill Arpin owns Burnt Paw Cabins & Outback in Tok. To power the seven one-room cabins and 1,400 square-foot gift shop costs Arpin about $2,000 a month despite taking measures to reduce electricity usage, he said.

“That’s watching it really close. I mean, we don’t just leave lights on arbitrarily, or all the time. There’s timers on some lights and photo sensors on others,” Arpin said. “We had halogens in and we switched to compact fluorescents and we cut our electric bill in half.”

Arpin said all one has to do is take a tour of the town to see the impact of high energy costs on Tok.

“If you drive around here, right now is a good time to do it. We just got a little snow, and you’ll see driveway after driveway and there’s no tracks going in or out,” he said. “Those houses are boarded up. They’re not for sale or trying to rent them or anything; they just can’t afford the electricity or heating oil.”

Deerfield said AT&P operates extremely efficiently, garnering “more kilowatt-hours per gallon of diesel than anyone in Alaska,” and is not to blame for electric cost problems. It comes down to the cost of diesel, he said.

After fuel is trucked in from Fairbanks, Ben Beste, internal project manager for AP&T, said the company is paying a total cost of about $4 per gallon for diesel.

AP&T is an employee-owned company with fixed profits, Beste said, and it doesn’t benefit from high power costs. Rather, the power company wants to lower rates for its customers and do what’s best for the communities it serves and looking into a wood biomass plant is one way to do that, he said.

Deerfield and Beste concurred that a biomass plant to replace the current operation would require roughly a $15 million initial investment. Deerfield said that specifics haven’t been worked out, but he sees at least partial state or federal funding as a distinct possibility.

“We looked at many options, hydro, wind, (natural gas), but in the Tok area biomass seems to be much more viable just because of the local nature of the fuel,” Beste said.

Dalson Energy has been working with AP&T for several years to determine which of Alaska’s cities and villages are good candidates for wood biomass power, Deerfield said.

“It quickly became apparent that of all the options, Tok is the place to do biomass energy,” he said. “In fact, in terms of biomass CHP, Tok is the best place in Alaska.”

Not only are the mature forests in the Tok area a prime fuel source for power, but according to Deerfield, they’re also a prime fuel source for a forest fire.

“The foresters (in the Tok area) say the forest is going to burn. It’s just a matter of whether it burns on its own or whether it’s going to be harvested and burned in a biomass boiler,” he said.

Rick Jandreau, a resource forester for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, said the forest surrounding Tok is comprised mainly of highly flammable black spruce. While cutting the spruce creates an initial fire barrier, he said, encouraging certain re-growth could provide long-term benefits.

“What we’re proposing to do in those areas is getting rid of the spruce and promote the regeneration of the aspen at the expense of the spruce so you’ve got more of a hardwood forest there which would make the area around Tok much more fire retardant,” Jandreau said.

He added that encouraging the fast growing aspen to replace spruce in a cut area is often as simple as cutting what aspen are already there.

“That’s what’s cool about aspen. If you cut it will shoot up from multiple root sprouts and it’s very good at that,” Jandreau said.

Both Deerfield and Jandreau said the current proposal calls for a harvest of 35,000 tons of green wood per year. Data from forestry surveys indicates a necessary harvest of 700 to 800 acres of forestland every year to provide for a biomass power plant in Tok. Jandreau said the annual allowable harvest for the area is roughly 1,200 acres per year, providing for other interests to use the remaining harvest allotment.

The plan is to harvest from 181,000 available acres around Tok. Forestry studies put re-growth to maturity times at 70 years for aspen in the nearby Tanana Valley State Forest, making for a sustainable biomass harvest, essential to any forest management, Jandreau stated.

“The harvest that’s planned is on state land designated for settlement. That settlement land happens to be the parcels closest to town,” Jandreau said. “We’ve talked with our sister agencies, they don’t have a problem with the plan so we’ll be concentrating our efforts — at least the first five years — within that area because that’s the most critical area for developing a good fire buffer.”

Deerfield said any cutting would be done in a manner to preserve the attractiveness of the area surrounding Tok.

“It’ll be designed to where you’ll have to get up in a helicopter or airplane to see where we’re harvesting,” he said.

With the promise of a positive feasibility study on the horizon, the biggest immediate challenge is working out a harvest contract with the state, Deerfield said. AP&T needs a 25-year contract to assure a reliable fuel source, he said.

The typical harvest contract awarded by the state is for a relatively short time, with few reaching five years, Jim Eleazer, forester for DOF said.

“Our contracts are good for two or three years. We haven’t really looked at it as, ‘is this contract good for a 25-year period?’” Eleazer said. “Nobody’s really done a project of this magnitude (in Alaska) to have anything to measure it against.”

Deerfield said he thinks a contract will be worked out because he believes “the future of forestry in Alaska is biomass energy.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/11/2016 - 8:09pm