March 1, 2012 | Vol. 39, No 9

Petersburg and Wrangell residents asked about bio fuels

Last week, residents with a landline received an automated phone call asking them about their interest in bio fuels — an alternative form of energy that could be used to heat homes.

The Feb. 23 phone survey was conducted by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) and asked both Wrangell and Petersburg residents two things: what their primary source of heating is, and if they would consider using a locally manufactured bio fuel product to heat their home.

According to the survey results, Wrangell was more open to bio fuel use than Petersburg residents.

Two hundred and thirty three surveys were completed between the two communities. Of the Wrangell residents that participated in the survey, 38 percent said they would use bio fuel, while 42 percent said they would not. Twenty-one percent said they were not sure.

Of the Petersburg residents that participated in the phone survey, 27 percent said they would use bio fuel, while 59 percent said they would not. Fourteen percent said they were not sure.

The phone survey came after a bio fuel presentation Feb. 21 at the Nolan Center in Wrangell by SEACC Community Organizer Jeremy Maxand. At last week’s presentation, Maxand said the Feb. 23 phone survey would help gauge resident’s interest in the use of bio fuels.

“What that will tell us is it will give us some kind of statistical analysis about what the market penetration is,” he said.

The City and Borough of Wrangell currently pays about $75,000 a year to ship out its nearly 590,000 pounds of paper and cardboard waste it accumulates annually.

The city is trying to find a way to deal with all this waste and its associated costs, said Maxand at the bio fuel presentation. One way is to turn that paper waste into an alternate fuel source that residents can begin using to heat their homes, said Maxand, who is also Wrangell’s mayor.

A bio fuel can essentially be anything used to burn to create heat, Maxand explained. He focused on wood pellets and bricks made from recycled materials during last week’s presentation.

Maxand said it is estimated that the city’s paper waste, along with the waste from the local saw mills, could create enough bio fuel material to replace 35 to 40 percent of heating oil and energy used to heat the homes in Wrangell.

Also, as the cost of heating fuel increases, more residents have switched to electric heat, Maxand said. In the last five years, Wrangell has seen a 50 percent increase in its load from electric heat, he said. Due to that demand in electricity, Maxand said it’s time Wrangell consider the use of bio fuels.

“I think the time is right now for us to be looking at ‘is this a product that we can create in Wrangell?’” he said.

He estimates if a resident were to purchase a biomass product to heat their home during the winter — for instance wood pellets or bio bricks — they could save half the amount per kilowatt-hour compared to what they are paying now to heat their home.

“The point of this is it’s economical for folks,” Maxand said. “And when folks aren’t spending money in heating oil, it’s money back in their pocket.”

Maxand said the next step in the bio fuel discussion is to conduct an economic feasibility study in Wrangell to determine if bio fuel conversions are possible and viable throughout town.

And, based on the “very simple” phone survey conducted last week, Maxand said it is clear there is enough interest in pursuing a more detailed feasibility study. If numbers from that study look good, Maxand said the next step would be to develop the capacity to locally manufacture a bio fuel product.

To conduct that feasibility study in Wrangell, the Wrangell Cooperative Association (WCA) has sent a letter to the Alaska Village Initiatives — a corporation that provides support to rural Alaska communities. The letter asks for funding for a feasibility study on creating a biomass energy manufacturing facility in Wrangell.

“To curb space-heating loads, as well as create jobs and keep money spent on energy in our community, WCA would like to explore the feasibility of producing a biomass product for use in both commercial and residential buildings,” the WCA letter states.

Specifically, WCA told Alaska Village Initiatives that Wrangell is interested in manufacturing a “briquette” or bio-brick product made from materials generated from the city’s paper waste and local sawmills, the WCA letter states.

“Briquettes would allow residential users to heat their homes without converting to a pellet wood stove and could take advantage of both mill waste and municipal solid waste,” the letter states.

At the bio fuel presentation last week, Maxand also suggested Wrangell focus on creating a briquette biomass product. Some Southeast Alaska communities are focusing on manufacturing wood pellets, so it may make sense for Wrangell to create a bio brick market, Maxand said.

The letter to the Alaska Village Initiatives is a result of a meeting held late last year between the city and WCA, said Tis Peterman, WCA grants administrator. Like the city, Peterman said WCA is concerned with the rising cost of energy.

Last July, WCA received a grant from the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program (IGAP) through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Peterman said. WCA is in the process of developing an environmental program with the tribe in Wrangell with the help of that grant, she said. The bio fuel feasibility study would tie into WCA’s efforts to create that environmental program in Wrangell, Peterman said.

“This is taking that a step further, which is exciting,” she said.

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