Haines State Forest (Credit: Flickr/~dgies)

Haines State Forest (Credit: Flickr/~dgies)

The Haines biomass project got another boost this week, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarding a $92,000 grant to the borough. The grant is for an industrial wood chipper and log splitter. The equipment will help Haines produce its own fuel source.

Haines is being touted as a leader in the state when it comes to biomass energy. This week, a group of stakeholders met to update the community on the progress of the $1.5-million plan to upgrade more heating systems in borough buildings over the next couple of years.

Bob Deering is with the U.S. Forest Service. He says the agency wants Haines to get it right to set the bar high for other communities.

“There are two communities that are leading on biomass in Alaska,” he says. “One is Ketchikan and the other is Haines. By enabling you guys to deploy advanced boilers, for you guys to develop your own fuel supply locally, is an example that we can show to other communities around the state.”

Last year, the borough purchased three refurbished boilers from the Coast Guard, which are currently in storage out at Mosquito Lake. The plan over the next year is to install a boiler at the school first, and eventually the wastewater treatment plant and the borough public facilities shop. All oil heat sources will remain online.

“We’ve got one borough building, the Haines Senior Center, which has been converted to biomass as a case study, and it’s been working out pretty well,” says Darsie Culbeck, a consultant on the project. “We’ve had some bumps in the road, but we’ve learned a lot from it and we’re moving forward.”

He says using locally harvested and processed chips as the fuel source is the goal.  

“What we’re trying to achieve is keeping that money in the local economy, creating jobs, let it spin around and help us out. Which also should save us money to run these buildings as well.”

When Haines starts using local wood as fuel, the plan is to keep the operation small and low tech. Again, here’s Deering from the Forest Service.

“I don’t see any sense in why we’d possibly be cutting down old growth solely for fuel,” Deering says. “If there’s old-growth harvest going on, we should be utilizing every bit of the tree and use the residue for fuel or other value products. The amount of wood that would be required out of the Haines State Forest, if you’re using all of the tree, is remarkably low.”

About one and half acres of utility-grade trees could heat the buildings on the biomass roster for one year.

Jim Nordland from the USDA’s Rural Development program was at the meeting to announce the latest grant funds. This money is allotted for the chip-making equipment, which would then be leased to the individual or business hired to take on the job. The borough will put out a request for proposals in coming months.

“The foresight you have as a community to see that ‘why don’t we use a local resource to create local jobs’ to heat your buildings,” Nordland. “I think that’s showing tremendous leadership and vision on the part of your community.”

The latest chunk comes on top of $1.4 million from the Alaska Energy Authority’s Renewable Energy Fund, and $250,000 from a Wood Innovation Grant courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

Greg Palmieri is a state forester in Haines. He says nothing in the forest management plan would have to change to provide the wood-chip resource.

“So, the type of harvest activity that you’re seeing with the local operators today would simply continue. This just gives them an opportunity to market utility wood that wasn’t marketable previously.”

The biomass committee will meet with members of school board and administration in a Thursday workshop, though that gathering will not include a public forum.

A lot of details still need to be worked out, like where the boilers will be housed, and how and where the chips will be dried and stored. But Culbeck says, cheaper, cleaner fuel is right around the corner.