Alaska school lights up new wood chip-fired boiler

A new wood energy project in Tok has turned surrounding forests from a fire hazard into renewable fuel. The Tok School lit a new wood chip-fired boiler for the first time several weeks ago.The 5.5-million-BTU steam boiler produces the school’s heat, saving the school district thousands of dollars in heating fuel and saving forest managers untold costs fighting fires and eliminating waste wood. The school district plans to add a steam turbine generator to the system in May to produce 75 percent of its electricity.

“We’re the first school in the state to be heated entirely by wood,” said project manager and assistant superintendent Scott MacManus, who has been trying to spur wood energy in Tok for 10 years. “As far as I know, we’d be the first public school in the country to produce heat and power from biomass.” At the school’s new biomass facility, trees and slash are fed into a Rotochopper grinder, processed into chips that resemble wood shavings, spit into a bin and carried by conveyor belt into the boiler, which is 17 feet tall, six feet wide and 12 feet long. Fuel comes from forest thinning projects, scraps and nearby sawmills. The forest around the school has yielded enough biomass for the first year, according to Alaska Division of Forestry spokeswoman Maggie Rogers. Project leaders hope the system will be used as a model of energy independence for other school districts, communities and utilities.

The project was a partnership between the Division of Forestry, the Tok community, the Alaska Gateway School District and the Alaska Energy Authority and used research from University of Alaska Fairbanks and elsewhere. Funding came from a $3.2 million state renewable-energy grant as well as about $750,000 in grants from the Alaska Legislature. A long-term fuel contract is in the works between the state and the school district.The project started nearly four years ago as a way to get rid of wood from thinning projects and lessen fire danger. Tok is prone to wildfire because it sits amid 40,000 acres of continuous fuel. In the past 25 years, nearly 2 million acres in the area have burned, costing more than $60 million in fire suppression and causing six evacuations, according to the state. Last year, the Eagle Trail fire scorched 18,000 acres.

The carbon emitted by the boiler is offset by the carbon absorbed during the life of the tree. “The beauty of it all is that it grows back. It’s carbon neutral and our foresters can finally manage our forest,” said Dave Stancliff, vice president of the Tok Chamber of Commerce and partner in the project.It’s also cheaper than wildfires, which cost between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre to fight near urban areas.

The boiler should burn 40 acres worth of wood per year, using only one-third of the area foresters want to clear in the boiler’s 30-year life span. The boiler is supposed to be as clean as burning heating fuel, and the school district will monitor its emissions. It burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and generates very little smoke, thanks to air that moves up through the wood chips and fans the flame. The boiler system, designed by German engineers, is a proven technology. More than 100 are operating around the country. It was designed to meet any air quality regulations Tok could see in the next 20 years (Tok has none now). Tok School spends more than $300,0000 annually on heating fuel and electricity, said school district superintendent Todd Poage. The boiler will save an estimated $125,000 per year on fuel, and the generator will further erode their bill.

Administrators hope the project will inspire other communities in the district and the state to take advantage of local resources. Villages without forests can consider other resources, like fish waste, peat, stream or wave power, project leaders said.

Via: The Alaska Journal

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