Three biomass boilers are on the way to Haines and they may just wind up heating much of the town. And while borough officials admit there is a risk, they say it’s worth the $60,000 they paid for the used systems.

The massive boilers are coming from Sitka and in as little as a year could be heating several local facilities. Biomass boilers use woodchips or pellets instead of oil or gas.  And while there is much to be done before the boilers are up and running, one big stride was made last week during the borough assembly meeting. The assembly adopted a resolution allowing borough manager Dave Sosa to purchase the used boilers to the tune of $60,000. The deal includes huge silos to store the chips or pellets capable of holding 60 tons, and the necessary equipment to get it all cooking.

A brand new biomass boiler costs around $400,000. So where does one acquire three used biomass boilers? Probably not Haines buy sell trade? The borough is purchasing the lightly-used boilers from the U.S. Coast Guard. One of them, however, was rebuilt after an explosion.

“It wasn’t that the boilers had a failure, it was the way that they plumbed them together that was the problem.”

That’s Darsie Culbeck, who is on contract with the borough to help facilitate the biomass project.

“During the testing phase, the explosion happened and Unilux came out and fixed… and, if you read, where all the systems worked:  the door blew off that was supposed to blow off and the plugs blew out that were supposed to blow off. They fixed all that stuff and identified that it was a Coast Guard design flaw not the boiler’s design flaw,” he said.

Assembly members Diana Lapham and Mike Case were looking for a warranty or some other assurance that these boilers aren’t faulty. Culbeck said the boilers have been rebuilt and are in excellent condition. Here’s that exchange starting with Lapham.

“Since one had exploded and they rebuilt it, and the other ones are used, what kind of guarantee do we have? 30 days? 60 days? 90 days?” Lapham asked.

“I actually do not know the answer to that question. I’m assuming that there’s no warranty when they get sold off surplus by the Coast Guard,” Culbeck responded. “I’ve talked to UniLux who makes the boilers and they say when they last saw the boilers they were in like-new conditions.”

Case wound up voting against the resolution, but the other five assembly members were in favor of the purchase.

Borough manager Sosa acknowledged that buying these huge burners is risky. But, he said, for the bargain price of 60 grand, it’s worth it.

“We’re taking a risk, it’s $60,000, it’s money from a grant but if it doesn’t work out, we’ll have to pay that money back,” Sosa said. “I acknowledge that and I feel in this case, the risk is worth taking. We have an opportunity that if it works out we’ll have a great system, if it doesn’t work out we could potentially sell the boilers that do work and recoup most of our loss, so we might take a loss on these.”

Culbeck says he’s not sure if woodchips or pellets will be used, both have their benefits and drawbacks. However, since woodchips are something that can be made locally, that could be a more cost effective choice. Unilux, the manufacturer of the boilers will train the locals hired to operate the system. And it’s worth noting that the biomass heating system will not completely replace the oil-burning heaters used now.

The original grant was for $1.3 million from the Renewable Energy Fund through the Alaska Energy Authority with the thought of using biomass boilers to heat several buildings around town. But now the borough is looking at a district-wide alternative. The boilers and everything that goes along with them could be housed in a central, out of the way location, with pipes snaking to various locations including the school, the pool and possibly the library and the borough administration building.

There is already one building in town that is utilizing a biomass heating system. The Haines Senior Center has been using pellets to heat the structure for a few years now.

Ann Hanssen, the former manager of the Senior Center, said between the boiler and the weatherization improvements, “the heat has never been better.”

But it’s not been without its glitches, says Ron Jackson. Jackson is currently on the borough assembly but was the treasurer at the senior center when the pellet-fueled boiler was first installed. He says that, yes, the pellets are cheaper than oil, but the system did pose some challenges. With those wrinkles ironed out, Jackson says he thinks the senior center boiler offers a learning experience for this next phase.

“It was a perfect pilot test to get our learning up and get the skills for doing the maintenance on it, learning how to fit it into buildings and what to consider as part of the whole package in the building,” Jackson said.

In short, proponents say, the biomass boilers will offer a cheaper, more climate conscious heating option in Haines, but residents will have wait a while to see just how those benefits affect them.