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Forestry’s Biomass Team Helping Advance Proposed Projects for Tok, Fort Greely

Alaska Gateway School District

The high cost of heat and electricity costs in the Interior have driven many communities to look for cheaper alternative forms of energy, including biomass, in the form of locally harvested timber processed into chips and burned in high-tech boilers.

In response to the growing interest in biomass, the state Division of Forestry has put together a group of specialists to handle proposals to harvest timber for biomass fuel.
State Forestry Division Director Chris Maisch says he’s glad to see two biomass-fueled powerplant projects have been proposed for two communities in the Interior to generate less-expensive heat and power with an abundant resource that hasn’t really been used until now – timber harvested from state forests, including black spruce, that’s processed and burned in high-tech, efficient non-polluting boilers.
“It’s a concept that deals with working forests, and using renewable resources like our forests as a way to help address high energy costs,” Maisch said.
But it’s a new kind of mission for Forestry, involving long-term contracts to harvest the smaller timber from large tracts in the Tanana Valley State Forest, instead of bigger stuff that has traditionally been cut for house logs and firewood.
To help Forestry manage what Maisch expects will be a growing demand for the resource, he’s put together a group of specialists to handle the many different tasks involved in harvesting timber for biomass fuel – and to relieve the additional burden on staff at Forestry area offices, like the one in Tok, that’s been dealing with developing a long-term timber-sales contract that’s part of that community’s biomass project proposal.
“Essentially we decided after taking a step back and looking at how we were trying to address the increased need for these longer-term timber sales that was overwhelming our individual area offices, which are pretty thinly staffed,” he said.
Maisch appointed Mike Curran, the agency’s coastal regional forester, to head up the biomass team, a group of eight specialists that’s taken the lead in the Tok project and another bigger biomass project that Fort Greely officials hope will replace that installation’s diesel-fueled heat and powerplant.
Curran says the agency expects to be working on more such projects, because of the success that school districts in Tok and Delta have had with smaller biomass systems – and because the Alaska Energy Authority has issued 22 grants to communities around the state for additional biomass-project feasibility studies.
“For us to be able to put out these much larger timber sales, as far as acreage goes, we would need to come up with a way to assist each area. And that’s what this biomass project team concept is all about,” Curran said.

Credit Alaska Gateway School District
Tok School's biomass boiler burns chunks and chips of black spruce and other timber that's been harvested from nearby state forest lands.

Maisch says the Large Timber/Biomass Sales Project Team is reworking the 25-year timber-sales contract proposed by Alaska Power and Telephone, the company that provides electricity for the Tok area. AP&T had proposed to harvest timber from 530 acres of state forest around Tok that would be used as fuel for a $15 million, 2-megawatt powerplant. AP&T proposed to build the facility to generate electricity for more than 800 homes in the community, in an effort to reduce the cost of generating electricity that’s now being produced by diesel-fueled generators.
Maisch says the Forestry had to withdraw its initial support for the proposed 25-year timber sales contract, because area residents wanted the agency to give local companies and Native corporations a shot at competing for it.
Maisch says the team should be issuing another preliminary finding for the project by November that will among other things open up the process to competitive bids.  
He says the biomass team also will work on at least two other proposals that would depend on timber harvests from the Tanana Valley State Forest. One by Fort Greely officials seeks to harvest timber on up to 1,500 acres of the forest annually over 25 years to provide some 110,000 tons of fuel every year for a proposed biomass combined heat and powerplant.
The Delta-area Forestry office is expected to schedule public meetings on that proposal by the end of the year.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.