Benefits of wood heating discussed at Senate hearing

By Erin Voegele | April 24, 2018

Wood energy was among the topics discussed during an April 19 hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that examined rural energy challenges and opportunities.

Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, discussed the use of wood heating in Alaska during his testimony.

Southeast Conference is a federally recognized economic development district for southeast Alaska. The organization aims to develop strong economies, healthy communities and a quality environment in southeast Alaska. “Our vision for southeast Alaska is to reduce, to the maximum extent possible, the use of imported diesel as a primary fuel source for the generation of electricity, space heat and transportation,” Venables explained in his written testimony.

One success story Venables described is the Southeast Island School District’s use of wood energy. In 2007, SISD built two new schools on Price of Wales Island, in Naukati and Coffman Cove, and chose a biomass cordwood system to supply heat. He said the abundant supply of wood and the simplistic nature of operations and maintenance made cordwood heating an attractive option for the schools.

In Coffman Cove, Venables said the conversion was successful in more ways than originally anticipated. The school not only saved money, but the social benefit of the heating system soon became the major selling point, he said.

“The school began purchasing cordwood from local firewood suppliers, including students and their families,” Venables said. “This was money that had been leaving the community to fossil fuel companies outside. The district paid $200 per cord and bought as much fire wood as possible. They soon had a 3-year supply, which was about $30,000 infused directly into the local economy.”

Due to the success of the Coffman Cove project, the school district also installed cordwood boilers in other schools on the island. In one school, a greenhouse was constructed to utilize excess heat from the cordwood system. The greenhouse serves as part of the school curriculum, teaching science, math and economics, and providing fresh vegetables to the school lunch program.

In his testimony, Venables provides data showing the economic benefits of wood heating in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Oregon. He stresses that Alaska differs significantly from the lower 48 states due to a harsher climate, communities that are more isolated, higher heating prices and a lack of jobs. For this reason small economic benefits have much larger community impacts in Alaska, he explained.

While a typical affluent household in Anchorage, Alaska, spends less than 2 percent of its household income on heating and electricity, Venables said low income households in remote communities spend as much as 47 percent of household income for the same services. While each Alaskan community is unique, he said several communities have observed quantifiable economic benefits from transitioning to wood energy.

Additional information, including an archived webcast of the hearing and full copies of written testimony, can be found on the committee’s website