Sealaska Corp. models commercial bio-energy conversion 

By Katie Spielberger | Capital City Weekly: In the immaculate boiler room of Sealaska Corporation’s headquarters, Nathan Soboleff lifts up the lid of a household-sized trash can, which is not yet full of ash. A couple of five-gallon buckets sit next to it. This is all the ash that’s been generated by building’s wood pellet boiler all winter, he says, adding that he is going to put some of it in his garden — it’s completely compostable.

Soboleff, the renewable energy coordinator for Sealaska Corporation, has been working on a project that’s been attracting attention across the state. The corporation’s headquarters in downtown Juneau is the first commercial building in Alaska to be powered completely by renewable bio-energy.

Juneau residents are used to seeing fuel trucks driving around town, delivering heating oil to homes and businesses. Soboleff hopes we will soon be seeing more wood pellet delivery trucks in their place.

The new wood pellet-burning boiler system was installed in the Sealaska Plaza last fall, and the corporation has been powering their building all winter entirely with renewable energy, for about 25 percent less than an oil burning system would cost.

Sealaska hopes their conversion will be a model that can be replicated through Southeast Alaska and the rest of the state, while at the same time promoting an industry that could benefit local economies.

A couple years ago, Sealaska began talking with Viking Lumber Inc., a family-owned sawmill near Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, about partnering to provide wood biomass energy for Southeast businesses and homes. It seemed like a win-win plan. Wood pellets would provide less expensive, clean energy to Southeast communities and also provide a use for a waste product from mill operations.

There was one problem: The demand wasn’t yet there. At the time, residents in Southeast were only using about 150 tons of wood pellets a year. The Sealaska Plaza building alone has doubled the demand, Sobeleff said, and he hopes that soon enough other buildings will increase the demand enough for it to be profitable for pellets to be manufactured in Southeast (Sealaska Plaza is currently using pellets from Washington).

“This is so new for people, there’s not that existing infrastructure,” Soboleff said.

Until recently, when people asked him about pellet boiler supplies and services he had to direct them to out-of-state business. Now he can happily direct them to local ones, such as Behrends Mechanical and The Plumbing and Heating Company.

In villages, Soboleff said the hope is that larger buildings such as schools or community centers will take the lead with the conversions, creating an economy of scale so that residents can then follow suit.

Burning wood pellets for energy is new in Alaska and the rest of the U.S., but it’s been used for years in Europe, Soboleff said. The Viessman boiler in Sealaska Plaza is Europe’s best-selling brand, and there are at least 15,000 similar boilers already being used around the rest of the world.

Sobeleff spends 10 minutes a week on simple maintenance for the boiler, and smaller systems wouldn’t even require that. The system can be remotely monitored and adjusted (he receives any error messages on his iPhone).

“We’ve just brought this existing technology to Alaska,” Soboleff said. “(The conversion) has been really seamless, because the system is tried and true. … The hard thing is convincing people that pellets really do work.”

Alaskans are quickly being convinced, and there are plans in the works for several conversions in the state, such as Ketchikan’s federal building. The project has attracted interest from the state of Alaska, the federal government, the Coast Guard, the City & Borough of Juneau, and school districts through the state.

It’s no accident that the building chosen to showcase the technology is located just a few blocks from the capitol.

“Sealaska Plaza is front stage to Alaska’s government,” Soboleff said, and “heating the state’s public and private buildings is a big part of our state’s budget.” He has showed off the system to quite a few legislators and commissioners.

And when the cruise ships start arriving in downtown Juneau and coloring the skies with gray plumes from their smoke stacks, take a look towards town for a contrast.

“You will never see anything coming out of the Sealaska chimney,” Soboleff said.

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