As heating oil costs continue to rise, many Alaskans are looking for cheaper alternatives to meet their energy needs. One method is converting plants, paper, or wood waste into biomass to use as a renewable energy source.
“Probably about 5-years ago the fuel prices got extremely high for a period of time and I was burning about 12-hundred gallons of oil a year in my house and I knew I needed to do something different,” he says.
That’s Wrangell resident Carl Johnson. Johnson has been heating his two-story home with wood pellets for 5-years. He says it cut his heating costs dramatically.
“I went from about $4,500 a year in oil to about $1,200 in pellets. I spend about half in wood pellets than I would in oil,” he says.
He buys in bulk from a manufacturer in the Lower-48, as well as from a retailer in town. He says heating could cost even less if he could buy from a local manufacturer.  At a recent meeting, SEACC Organizer Jeremy Maxand proposed just that.
“What we want to do is take a look at what the potential market penetration is for biofuels and look at the feasibility of building a manufacturing plant in Wrangell,” he says.
According to Southeast’s draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), a long-term generation and transmission study; there’s been a 50 percent increase in load on the hydropower system over the past 5-years. The IRP recommends the use of biofuels in homes and government buildings to help cut down on the load, as well as heating oil costs.
SEACC recently conducted a survey of residents in Wrangell and Petersburg to find out what types of energy people are using to heat their homes. It also asked whether people would be interested in using locally manufactured biofuel. Maxand, who is also Wrangell’s mayor, says 233 surveys were completed between the two communities.
“What we found in Wrangell and Petersburg, particularly in Wrangell is that 38% of respondents would be willing to purchase or use a locally manufactured product. And that is really important to know before you get too far down the road, to be able to know what the level of interest is,” he says.
Throughout Southeast Alaska, a number of successful biomass boiler projects have been developed. Sealaska Corporation’s Juneau headquarters has switched from oil to wood pellet heat. Craig and Thorne Bay heat school with waste-wood boilers.
Wrangell is considering manufacturing wood and paper briquettes that can be used in home wood stoves. Unlike pellet stoves, briquettes or “bio bricks” can be used just like regular firewood. Maxand says ultimately the conversion to biomass comes down to the needs of each individual community.
“We need to realize we are in a perfect storm right now between the Integrated Resource Plan, state funding, grant opportunities, small mills, municipal solid waste problem, you bring all these things together and you basically end up with an opportunity that can at least solve the heat side of the energy issue in Wrangell,” he says.
Last year Allen Brackley a Research Forest Supervisor for Sitka’s Wood Utilization Center visited Wrangell to speak on the town’s future forest product industry. One potential he says is the conversion of Wrangell’s small mill wood waste.
“There are a lot of renewable energy options, and I think in the short term the most viable biomass renewable energy options are some form of wood, then there’s wind power and solar power and all of those are making gain,” he says.
Brackley estimates it would take 23,000 cords of wood to replace all of the fuel oil used in homes and commercial buildings in Wrangell and Petersburg. This he says is 100% market penetration, which he believes won’t happen.  He estimates that a reasonable rate of penetration over the next 10 years might be 1/3 of the market.
The local tribal government recently sent a letter of interest to Anchorage-based Alaska Village Initiatives requesting assistance in performing a feasibility study for biofuel manufacturing in Wrangell. Later this month Wrangell’s Borough Assembly will vote on a briquette pilot project that could potentially decrease the high costs of municipal waste disposal. If approved it will be passed on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).