Andy Baker, owner and project manager of YourCleanEnergy LLC, was in Wrangell Monday to introduce a cleaner, cheaper heating source. Seawater-based heat pumps can lower heating costs by harnessing heat from the ocean to keep a building warm.
Baker said seawater-based heat pumps are very efficient. They use a small amount of electricity to lift heat out of the ocean.
“We put one unit of energy into the system, we get three units out. That’s because two thirds are coming from the ocean,” Baker said. “If there’s any magic or secret to it, that’s it. We’re borrowing the heat from the ocean and moving it into the building at a higher temperature.”
This may sound improbable in Alaska, but Baker said it all starts with the sun.
“And a lot of people say, ‘Well we don’t have a lot of solar energy here in Alaska.’ That’s not true. It depends where you’re looking. In the case of the ocean, the big heat exchanger is really the equator. That’s what’s happening for us here,” Baker said.
Seawater warms up near the equator and eventually gets moved through the Inside Passage.
A seawater-based heat pump system brings water in through a filtered intake, which is placed at just the right depth for consistently “warm” temperatures. The seawater meets a refrigerant and the liquid becomes a warm vapor. That vapor is compressed, its temperature increases, and it provides heat for the building.
Baker said heat pumps that use seawater are not very feasible for individual houses. He recommended starting with a system for a specific area in town that would target several large, high-use buildings first.
“If you have a downtown district and you’re on heating oil or electric heat, and you go to heat pumps you get a loop going, you’re going to reduce the cost of heating in that district,” Baker said. “Therefore, you’re going to densify the district. If a business owner has the chance to move in, set up shop and pay less, he’s going to make more profit. Therefore, you densify the downtown district where you have it, and tax revenues will go up.”
Seawater-based heat pumps are not new. Norway pioneered them in the 1980s, and there are systems in Sweden, Finland and Canada, too.
But the technology is pretty new to Alaska. The most notable Alaskan example is the SeaLife Center in Seward, which cut its heating costs in half after switching to heat pumps in 2012.
Clay Hammer is superintendent for Wrangell Municipal Power and Light. He said Baker’s presentation shows there is a lot of potential for seawater-based heat pumps in Wrangell, given its position right on the ocean.
“He demonstrates very good examples of how other communities have taken advantage of that. And I’m just hoping that we can too,” Hammer said.
About 20 people attended the presentation at the Nolan Center.