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Housing Research Center Project to Test System That Heats Without Fossil Fuels

Tim Ellis/KUAC

*This story won Third Place for Best Environmental Reporting from the Alaska Press Club in 2013.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks moved ahead Wednesday on a project that will demonstrate how solar energy can be collected year-round and used to heat a commercial building without fossil fuels, like heating oil. The project is being funded by one of the world’s biggest fossil-fuel companies.

Workers sprayed foam insulation onto a cylindrical steel tank the size of school bus that’s dangling from a big crane just outside the Cold Climate Housing Research Center’s office on Fairbanks’ west side.

A few minutes later, the crane operator swung the 40-foot-long tank into its final resting place – a big trench that was excavated Tuesday on the west side of the building.

It’s all part of a project that center research engineer Bruno Grunau says will demonstrate how solar energy can be collected and stored year-round in these northerly latitudes and used to heat a commercial-size structure – in this case, the center’s just-completed 8,000-square-foot addition.

“With this building addition, our goal was to run it completely without fossil fuels,” said Grunau, who's heading up the project. “And so our approach in doing that was, one, using a pellet boiler, and two, supplementing that heat with this solar-thermal system.”

The big tank – which was donated by Fairbanks entrepreneur Bernie Karl – is coated with 6 inches of polyurethane foam and will be covered with about three feet of soil, then filled with 25,000 gallons of water.

Next spring, it’ll be hooked up to an automated solar-thermal system that’s been installed in the addition.

Grunau says the system will circulate fluid that’s been warmed in an array of 16 solar-heating panels on the building’s rooftop to the tank, and the water will store the heat collected from the panels – heat that can be later used to warm the building.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Glen Stebbins, with Precision Crane, unhooks straps from the tank after it was placed into a trench just outside a recently completed 8,000-square-foot addition to the housing research center.

“We can manage that heat,” he said. “We can either send the heat to the building, directly, or we can send it to that tank. And when the time comes when the sun’s not putting so much heat out, we can pull the heat from the tank and put it right back into our building.”

It’s an impressive system, but the technology has been around for a while. But what distinguishes this demonstration project is that the system will be fully “instrumented,” meaning sensors have been placed throughout to monitor how it’s functioning.  Grunau says that’ll help center staff determine how the technology is working – and it’ll provide real-time data that the center will share online.

“We’re going to be able to put it up on the website,” he said, “so that anyone anywhere around the world can pull it up and look at our system and say ‘Hey, this is what they’re doing today. This is what the energy flow did. This is how much heat they made, this is how many BTUs they made this year, this month.’ ”

Center Director Jack Hebert says this project is another effort by the center to research ways that Alaskans can heat their homes in an economical, and renewable, way.

“Of course as the state of Alaska’s housing research center, it’s really our responsibility to explore anything that’s available that may help decrease the energy cost for people in the state,” Hebert said. “And the sun of course is a potential resource.”

Hebert says it’s noteworthy that this $65,000 renewable-energy project was funded through a grant from one of the world’s biggest fossil-fuel producers – BP Alaska.

“I think that it’s very encouraging to see BP, a company that’s normally associated with the drilling and sale of fossil fuels, to support renewable energy,” he said. “And we hope this will be an example of a sustainable approach to a building that uses no fossil   fuels at all.”

You can find out more about the project at the center’s website,

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.