Biomass 

bamboo garden

Bioenergy is a collective term for renewable energy made from the organic material of recently deceased plants or animals. Sources of bioenergy are called “biomass” and include agricultural and forestry residues, municipal solid wastes, industrial wastes, and terrestrial and aquatic crops grown solely for energy purposes. Bioenergy includes the generation of energy from biological sources such as landfill gas and the combustion of organic fuels to produce electricity or heat. Although oil and natural gas are energy sources derived from deceased plants and animals, they are not considered biomass because their organic material has not been a part of the carbon cycle for millions of years.

Biomass is an attractive petroleum alternative because, developed responsibly, it is a renewable resource that is more evenly distributed over the Earth’s surface than finite energy sources, and may be exploited using more environmentally friendly technologies. It is also considered “carbon neutral,” meaning the carbon absorbed during the lifespan of the organisms from which it was created counters the carbon released by the combustion of the biofuel. Today, biomass resources are used to generate electricity and power and to produce liquid transportation fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is the most widely used biofuel. Currently, a majority of ethanol in the United States is made from corn, but new technologies are being developed to make cellulosic ethanol from a wide range of agricultural and forestry resources, including organic waste byproducts such as sawdust or cornhusks. In Alaska, primary biomass fuels are wood, sawmill wastes, fish byproducts, and municipal waste, though there is also some potential to grow energy crops such as canola for biofuel development.

Waste wood and sawdust

Wood chips for use in the Craig boiler. (City of Craig)

Wood chips for use in the City of Craig boiler

With 11.9 million acres of productive forestland (forest not in Park or Wilderness areas) and the ability to grow up to 3.5 million cords of wood a year, Alaska has the potential to develop a biomass industry that could supply abundant, cheap power to many towns. Wood is already an important renewable energy source for Alaskans, with over 100,000 cords per year used for space heating statewide. Alaska’s waste wood and wood products could provide an excellent source of fuel to help lower heating costs in many Alaskan communities. An estimated 2.3 million acres of forests in Alaska have been impacted by bark beetle infestations, and thinning of these forests is necessary for overall forest health.

Closure of the major pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan in the 1990s ended large-scale wood-fired power generation in Alaska. However, the price of oil has raised interest in using sawdust and wood wastes as fuel for lumber drying, space heating, and small-scale power production. In 2010, the Tok School installed a chip-fired boiler displacing approximately 65,000 gallons of fuel oil annually. Also in 2010, Sealaska Corporation installed the state’s first large-scale pellet boiler at its headquarters in Juneau. Additional wood-fired boilers have been installed in Kasilof, Sitka, Craig, Dot Lake, Tenana, Coffman Cove and Gulkana. More than 40 other projects are being considered across the state. Alaska has also seen renewed interest in converting low-value wood and wood wastes to liquid fuels such as ethanol, though further technological development is necessary before this use of wood waste becomes a possibility.

Biodiesel

Every year groundfish processors across Alaska produce approximately 8 million gallons of Pollack oil as a byproduct of fishmeal plants. The oil is used as boiler fuel for drying the fishmeal or exported to Pacific Rim markets for livestock and aquaculture feed supplements. In 2001, with assistance from the State of Alaska, processor UniSea Inc. conducted successful tests of raw fish oil/diesel blends in a 2.2 MW engine generator. Today UniSea uses about 1.5 million gallons of fish oil a year to operate their generators, boilers and fishmeal dryers.

Many Alaskans use vegetable oils, recycled cooking oils, and other animal fats to manufacture biodiesel engine fuels. In 2010, Alaska Waste opened the state’s first large-scale biodiesel refinery, producing up to 250,000 gallons annually from local restaurant vegetable oil waste. Alaska Waste plans to use the biodiesel to fuel up to 20% of it vehicles. The Alaska Energy Authority is working with the University of Alaska, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the National Park Service to test biodiesel generators at the UAF campus and Denali National Park.

Municipal Waste

Alaskans produce about 650,000 tons of garbage annually and have seven class I landfills (landfills that accept 20 tons or more solid waste daily) throughout the state. From 1997-2007, Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks used 600-3000 tons of densified paper from the Fairbanks landfill annually to co-burn with coal, producing up to 1.5% of the base’s heat and power. Chena Power is developing a 400 kW biomass powerplant at the Fairbanks North Star Borough landfill that would run off of 4,300 tons of waste paper, cardboard, and land waste annually.

Methane gas produced as a by-product of landfills can also be used to produce electricity. In 2012, the Municipality of Anchorage and Doyon Utilities commissioned a 5.6 MW methane power plant at the city’s landfill to provide over 25 % of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson’s electrical load.

Sources:
Alaska Energy Authority
Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
City of Craig
Chena Hot Springs
Alaska Biodiesel and SVO Network
“Landfill Gas Utilization Economic Evaluation for Anchorage Regional Landfill”
2013 Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska

Who we are

Renewable Energy Alaska Project is a coalition of energy stakeholders working to facilitate the development of renewable energy in Alaska through collaboration, education, training, and advocacy.