WRANGELL — With the rising costs of heating homes and businesses in Southeast Alaska, an earth-friendly product may be the answer to lower costs – and possibly creating jobs in Wrangell.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, in collaboration with the Wrangell Cooperative Association, has been working in past weeks to bring a feasibility consultant to the borough in an effort to determine the economic and strategic possibilities of producing a biofuel – or “biobrick” – product locally.
Biobricks are burnable bio-fuel, with no artificial binders, that are comprised of waste wood and other biodegradable matter. The bricks are created using a hydraulic process that exerts heavy force to form them out of straw, wood, grass and other waste products.
According to a study by a Kansas-based manufacturer of the product, a 36 square-foot pallet of biobricks is equal to a single cord of firewood, and 1 lb. of bricks burns with the same intensity as 1.7 lbs. of firewood.
The bricks also cost close to $15 per million BTUs, while fuel oil in Wrangell can cost as much as $30 per million BTUs.
With No. 2 fuel oil prices hovering between $4-5 in Wrangell, cheaper and more efficient sources of energy are, “something residents might find attractive as a means of heating their homes and businesses,” Jeremy Maxand added.
That same study stated that regular firewood burns with only 94 percent the efficiency of a biobrick. According to Maxand, the bricks also put out 1.25-1.5 times the energy of regular firewood.
Finding the money for the feasibility study came from Alaska Village Initiatives, a non-profit organization based in Anchorage that specializes in economic development in rural Alaska and advocates for tribal corporations in the state.
Up to $25,000 was available from AVI to eight communities in Alaska, with Wrangell being the sole feasibility study in Southeast.
The question of whether Wrangell Island can support a biobrick industry is the reason Dr. Bill Wall of Sustainability Inc. was in Wrangell July 17-18.
Wall, a wildlife biologist and forester, who has also served as the Director of International Wildlife Conservation Program at the Safari Club International Foundation, and as Regional Wildlife Biologist at the Potlatch Corporation, was in the borough to meet with tribal council members, Maxand and to visit Mike Allen’s m%ill operation and the former Silver Bay mill site.
“My company specializes in small Alaskan community biomass projects,” Wall said. “We try to figure out the most effective way to utilize local resources to make communities more sustainable.”
While most people in Southeast Alaska think of biomass as mill waste, Wall said it also includes lower quality wood and biological plant material.
“We’ll be looking at slash from harvest sites, material that has been historically used as pulp, sawmill waste materials, and materials coming off Mt. Seley,” Wall added.
Mt. Seley is a large pile of sawdust and wood chips at the former Silver Bay site.
In order to make the bricks, the biomaterial is dried to between 10-12 percent moisture content, which makes its utilization in wood stoves far more efficient.
“The nice thing about bricks is that they work in regular wood stoves,” Wall said. “So, we’re not changing out stoves and people can use what they already have. It burns much cleaner and efficient than firewood in those stoves because of that lower moisture content.”
The main issue in question about getting the biomass to that moisture content is how much energy it will take to do so – and whether it will be cost effective at the same time.
“Therein lies the issue,” Wall added. “You have to add energy to either biopellets or biobricks to make the product. That is part of the feasibility study. We need to look and see if it makes sense to add that energy to make them.”
Wall said his main goal, though, is to determine the viability of building a biobrick plant in Wrangell.
“The number one thing you have to have in any biomass project is a sustainable supply of a material you know to be of the quality you need for the process,” Wall said. “That means we need a saw mill with a certain percentage of wood coming off it that would be available.”
On the other hand, Wall added, there also has to be a viable economic component in the community.
“Folks have to decide that they like biobricks and want to burn them,” he said.
Maxand said the bricks, if developed on the island would be for Wrangellites first and foremost.
“These biobricks, if we can find a way of making them here, would be for Wrangell consumption primarily,” Maxand said.
Biobricks are noted for burning cleaner than normal firewood, leaving behind as little as 1 percent ash, by weight.
Maxand said a new biomass facility could also create a handful of jobs within the borough.
“It depends on the volume you are producing, and your business model, but you could see between 4-5 jobs created by this,” he said. “There would be people operating the manufacturing equipment, and you’d also need people to pick up the waste product. There could also be a full-service component including delivery, chimney cleaning and teaching users how to effectively use the biobrick product.”
Maxand said that smaller biochips could also be used to heat larger buildings in the borough.
“Chips would be used in a central heat distribution system,” he said. “There have been discussions with Forest Service about going to biofuels for their building. There has also been talk about central heating, using biofuels for other large buildings here, like our elementary school.”