by Rhonda McBride and Shawn Wilson
9:09 AM AKDT, August 28, 2012
Chena Hot Springs, AK.
When the Renewable Energy Fair started seven years ago at Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks, a lot of what we saw back then wasn't tried and true. Today, many of those technologies -- wind, solar and biomass -- are in use across Alaska, where some of the highest energy costs in the nation have made necessity the mother of invention.
One of the displays this weekend that attracted attention was an electric snowmobile, developed by students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Isaac Thompson, a UAF electrical engineering graduate student, helped with the design that continues to be a work in progress.
Thompson says riding this snowmachine is a very different experience from one with a gasoline engine. For one thing, there’s no smell. And it’s quiet.
“What you hear is the track underneath it,” says Thompson. “And if you’re in deep snow, you’re barely even hearing that. It’s almost like being on a snowboard.”
The machine can hit speeds of up to 70 miles an hour. In a recent competition in Greenland it performed well at 40 below. The main drawback: it can only go about 20 miles on one charge.
Thompson says even a 20 mile range might be useful in a small village, where gas costs can run as high as eight to twelve dollars a gallon.
“It’s a whole lot cheaper to pull electricity from the power plant than it is to pour gas in the machine,” Thompson told a group of people who had come to check out the machine.
One of those included a seventh grade Big Lake student, Isaac Hansen, who believes that most cars will be electric by the time he grows up.
“I think it’s nice that people are actually doing something about gasoline prices in Alaska,” says Hansen. “I listen to my dad talk to my mom about gas prices and how they’re bad.”
Some of the products on display are already helping to cut costs.
Chad Schumaker of Superior Pellet Fuels, which has a manufacturing plant between North Pole and Fairbanks, says the energy fair is two-way street.
He says it’s a chance for the public to learn about what’s new -- and to give their feedback, which leads to more innovation.
“The more we try raw material mixtures, the better our product gets,” says Schumaker.
Schumaker has samples of pellets made from local woods like spruce and birch. It’s taken a few years of experimenting to learn how to process these woods, so that they burn efficiently in a wood stove.
Each bag costs about six dollars. Schumaker says it takes about a bag-and-a-half to heat a Fairbanks home on a cold winter day.
Among cities in the United States, home heating costs in Fairbanks rank at the top, because of the community’s reliance on diesel fuel. Wood pellets now offer an alternative to oil.
“If you replace that by burning wood pellets, it’s going to equate to a 40 percent cost savings on heating your home,” says Schumaker.
Pellet technology on a bigger scale was also featured at the Chena energy fair.
Chena Power is a recycling business that was started by Bernie Karl, owner of Chena Hot Springs. It takes cardboard and paper trash, collected from the Fort Wainwright Army Post and the UAF campus, and turns it into chunky candy bar-sized pellets that are burned in a biomass power plant near Fairbanks. It also utilizes a smoke stack-free design. (Next page)
One of the big draws every year are speeches from experts in the renewable energy industry as well as government leaders, who help to finance some of these demonstration projects.
Alaska’s entire congressional delegation was on hand, speaking in a pavilion that was made from timbers recycled from a North Slope oilfield.
The energy fair has the feel of an old time revival, where the speakers and the audience are singing from the same page -- celebrating the benefits of making and saving energy.
For Bernie Karl, it’s a pulpit to push his can-do message, that “renewable is doable,” the theme of this year’s gathering.
“I want America to get its greatness back,” he told the crowd. And innovation, Karl says, is the key.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, worries that Alaska’s pioneer spirit is not as strong as it once was.
"We’re losing a lot of our vision. And that’s not good,” said Young, who also called on Alaskans to support energy projects, even if they are in other parts of the state and they won’t directly benefit. “We must solve these problems as a state.”
“It’s not a shortage of resources or a shortage of ideas,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told the crowd. “But we need to believe that we can make things happen.”
One of Murkowski’s guests at the fair this year, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said he was impressed with what he saw.
“Anybody that ever asks me again in the future, where the big ideas are in America, I’m going to say, 'Come to this community. Visit with Bernie Karl. This is the capital of big ideas,'” said Wyden, who is slated to be chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, depending on whether the Democrats can hold onto their majority in the Senate.
If Republicans take control of the Senate, Murkowski would get the leadership role. But both have vowed to support renewable energy development, no matter what happens in the fall elections.
Both Wyden and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, talked about how renewable energy is a good starting point to build better bipartisan relationships.
“One of the things we’re going to do in the United States Senate next year -- Lisa, Mark and I -- we’re going to get some common sense policies back on biomass,” said Wyden who says his colleagues don’t understand how much the technology for burning biomass fuels has improved, to produce both clean and efficient energy. He also talked about how Alaska and Oregon can help each other develop geothermal energy.
Seeing technology is believing it. That’s been the philosophy of Karl, who each year uses the energy fair to showcase innovation at Chena Hot Springs.
This year, the new LED lighting system, used at the resorts’ experimental greenhouses, was one of the big attractions. Karl uses geothermal energy to keep these big growing rooms warm enough to raise vegetables year round. The lettuce and tomatoes find their way into salads that are served at Chena’s restaurants. Karl recently began growing olives, bananas, limes and other fruit.
Karl says the Light Emitting Diodes have cut electricity consumption by 90 percent. Also, the mixture of red, orange, white and blue lights mimic natural sunlight and promote faster growth rates.
Karl says indoor growing techniques are important to Alaska’s future.
“We need to lead the parade in growing food,” says Karl. “The biggest thing Alaska should worry about is food security. If ever there’s a problem in transportation, you’ll see people fighting over food.”
Karl says he hopes that Alaska villages will one day embrace greenhouse technology. Although they do not have the geothermal energy that Chena Hot Springs has, he says villages do have waste heat generated from power plants that could be used. And there are other sources.
“I know that every one of the villages has trash. They should take their trash and turn it into cash to grow food,” says Karl.
Karl also showcased a prototype of a miniature turbine, technology that can take excess heat from a stove and turn it into electricity. Karl believes it has a lot of promise for Bush Alaska.
Some of the vision here is slowly catching on, and people like Katie Marquette, who sat at a booth for REAP -- which stands for Renewable Energy Project Alaska, says the Chena energy fair and other community events make a difference, because they keep a the statewide conversation about energy going -- and she’s pleased that politicians are paying attention.
“It’s always promising when you see the whole congressional delegation come together. This isn’t a partisan issue. This is just an Alaskan issue,” said Marquette who is communications director for REAP.
She believes that in the coming decades, some of the technologies on display at the fair will be more mainstream.
“I hope by the time I’m 50, we’re seeing things like tidal projects,” said Marquette who is 25. “I think there’s huge potential.”
Potential. No one here disagrees that Alaska has plenty of that. But Karl says it’ll take more “imagineering” to take advantage of the state’s wealth of untapped energy. He says Alaska’s future depends on the ability of it’s young people to become imagineers, perhaps more than anything else.
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