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In a quest for cheaper energy, Kake turns to biomass heating

Alaskans spend nearly 60 percent more on energy than the national average, and in some rural communities, that number is much higher. The Kupreanof Island village of Kake is trying to bring down the high cost of energy by transitioning to renewables. They’ve looked at solar, wind, hydro and now biomass heating, an old technology with a new design.

When Gary Williams retired after 30 years as executive director of Kake’s Tribe, the Organized Village of Kake, he decided to turn his attention to energy.

“The cost of energy here is high, so if we can come up with some more affordable energy, it’s always a good thing to pursue,” he said.

He worked on a successful solar project and helped conduct feasibility studies for wind energy. And now, he’s working to replace the tens of thousands of gallons of non-renewable heating oil used to heat the town’s school and other large facilities with a renewable and readily available resource: wood. 

“We’ve got a fuel supply that’s literally in our backyard. We’re in the middle of the Tongass,” Williams said. “So it would reduce the need for imported fuels and also at the same time as we harvested our local fuels, it would create jobs and put money into our local economy.”

Burning wood to stay warm is obviously an ancient technology, but the system that Williams and other energy stakeholders in Kake are hoping to implement is high-tech. Special sensors and multiple chambers mean it burns hot and efficiently. The impact on air quality is the same or less than a system that uses heating oil. 

It’s called a biomass district heating system. 

“Biomass means a lot of things,” Clay Good, who works for the Renewable Energy Alaska Project or REAP, said. He’s been involved with several of Kake’s renewable energy projects. “It can mean food waste or fish waste or anything that’s biological, any carbonaceous material that can be utilized for some kind of energy source.”

In this case, it means wood that’s leftover from thinning of second growth forests or from timber operations. 

“It’s not a big leap to think well if that’s just left there, it’s gonna be burned. Let’s use that material,” Good said. “We’ll just grind it up into chips and feed it into our industrial boiler here.”

If Kake’s system becomes a reality, it could heat the school, senior center, health center, community center and other public buildings and save the community nearly $100,000 a year on energy costs. 

And Kake’s not the only community looking into biomass. Dozens of places around the state are already using it. The interior town of Tok also uses their system to produce electricity through steam for their school. Local school district Superintendent Scott MacManus said it’s saved them money and created jobs since they first implemented it a decade ago.

“Besides just a couple jobs running the plant, we are able to hire counselors that we didn’t have before and for a while we had a music program,” MacManus said. “It was because of the funding that we were able to save with the school.”

He admits there were challenges, like finding people knowledgeable enough to work on the technology or convincing community members that it was a good idea. And, he said, it’s not the right fit for everyone.

“One of the things about renewable and sustainable energy is that it’s got to be specific to where you are. You have to look at what’s available locally,” he said.

But Gary Williams thinks it is the right technology for Kake. And one more step toward energy independence, energy affordability and sustainability.

Besides making this work for our community today, we want to make sure we leave a good world for our grandchildren too,” Williams said.

Kake was awarded a USDA grant to design their biomass system. They received the design plans back earlier this summer. Now, they just have to find the funding to build it.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America Corps member. This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KCAW and Alaska’s Energy Desk.

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