Visit to Summit Lake sparks renewed Interest in alternative energy options

By Heidi Zemach for SCN

Some 40 local business owners, city officials and others met at the Seward Chamber of Commerce offices with Christi Bell, Director of the Center for Economic Development, with the University of Alaska, Anchorage privately last month. They divided into various committees, based on their interests, and each committee vowed to initiate positive changes that they could make in Seward within the next 90 days.

Some may remember Bell as the woman who facilitated a series of public meetings in Seward a while ago to discuss the direction people wanted Seward to go, a process that stemmed from an independent study commissioned by the city prior to those meetings detailing the state of the business sector, and the changes that they, and consumers would like to see made. After a hiatus, and change of city administration, Bell has been re-hired to help the community continue that process.

Tom Tougas, the owner of Major Marine Tours and Hertz Rentals, chose to head up the Business and Innovation Committee. For a start, they are exploring alternative methods of energy and fuel conservation and their potential for use in Seward as fuel prices are unpredictable, are steadily rising, and are the bane of many area businesses.

To that end, 17 local individuals and business leaders recently visited Summit Lake Lodge, a lodge with a restaurant and ice cream shop some 45 miles outside of town, to see the small water-heating furnaces that its owners have put into place to lower their fuel costs, and make their budgeting more predictable.

Using a geothermal water exchange system, the new system pumps water that is a constant 47 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom of the nearby lake into the lodge building at 41 degrees to be used to heat their hot water and provide radiant heat. Once it comes into the building, the water is circulated through a closed loop of harmless glycol antifreeze, commonly used in refrigeration, and car heaters, and is further heated to 130 degrees via three small, quiet water heaters. Although the process increases Summit Lake Lodge’s overall use of electricity, due to the pump and circulation system, amounting to an additional $3,000-$5,000 cost to the owners per year, they calculated they will save $22,000 they would have paid in propane costs, leaving them with about $17,000 in savings. The money saved will be used to pay the back the loan for the new equipment. But unlike the cost of fuel, the cost of the loan is fixed, and once paid for in four or five years, it disappears, Tougas explained: “So he’s fixing his energy cost so he can predict what it will be for the next ten years, and eliminating the burning of fossil fuels.”

Converting to geothermal might increase a business’ electrical costs somewhat, which would help the city fund its aging infrastructure needs, Tougas said, but nobody, not the city, nor small businesses benefit from residents burning additional fuel.

Advertisement

On Sept 18th, the committee will host a meeting with representatives of the company that sold and installed the heat pump system at Summit Lake to learn more about the possibilities of these geothermal water heaters in Seward, and about geothermal possibilities generally.

It’s going to take folks willing to experiment, like the owners of Summit Lake Lodge, to pave the way, so others can actually see working examples, and learn from them, said Seward City Building Inspector Stefan Nilsson, who grew up in Sweden, and Scandinavia, places far ahead of the U.S. in their use of alternative energy, and which have relied on geothermal heating systems, and other alternative energy sources for decades: “So when I came here, and saw the 2 X 4 construction, single or double-paned windows, I felt I was going back in time,” Nilsson said.

Alaskans, he finds, tend to doubt that heat from the ground or lakes can provide all the heat that they will need, whereas the Swedish people know that they not only can work, but they do work. Yet Alaskans also tend to build their homes and business structures closer to the minimum building standards required, so their walls are not as thick as they could be to provide better insulation, and their windows aren’t double or triple paned, as they are in Scandinavia. Their roofs and basements are also poorly insulated, in part due to our comparatively low building standard requirements, he said.

The recent interest in alternative energy sources is heartening to the Swedish building inspector, however. Looking around, Nilsson also can see potential for residents near lakes, such as those living in the Bear Lake neighborhood, to tap into that them for a ready heat supply. There may also be deep well geothermal options available here, where temperatures just 300-400 feet below the ground’s surface remain very steady, and can be tapped into for heat.

Rather than looking to purchase more efficient or more powerful heating systems, Nilsson suggests that residents first take a careful look at their own building’s energy loss, and do what is required to better insulate them, which would keep their homes warmer, and lower their fuel consumption.

The business and innovation committee also hopes to explore other alternative energy options already taking place in Seward, including at the Alaska SeaLife Center and by the Kenai Fjords National Park Service.

9 Comments

  1. So is the meeting on the 18th going to be “private”, too?

  2. How is the SeaLife Center doing with their heat exchanger? It has been a couple of years now since they installed the system there to take advantage of the temperature differential of the sea water.

    Also, how come nothing is ever mentioned about the small hydroelectric plant in the Lowel Canyon spillway? It is my understanding that this was operational until the 60′s when it was damaged. Does this exist or is it just another urban legend?

    • In 06 after RBCA and the citizens of Seward fended off the then-proposed coal fired power plant a whole lot was mentioned and studied regarding hydroelectric potential of Lowell Creek until the Oates/Dunham Administration took over. After that they chose instead to focus on Fourth of July Creek Creek potential which turned out to be ill-advised. A contractor set out to conduct a flow-study but the meter they installed was lost in the first flood and the project seems to have been shelved.

      Lowell Creek was indeed used to generate power for Seward for decades. There were lots of problems with debris with the seasonal floods and it was eventually abandoned when the power-grid reached Seward. RBCA hosted a well respected engineer from Anchorage several times (06-07) and presented his case publicly for considering Lowell Creek as an energy source but like I said when Oates came along it was all dropped. In the meantime issues rose with the diversion tunnel and its ownership and responsibility of maintenance. This all complicates the potential but by no means renders it impossible. Lowell Creek has the flow and drop necessary and has no fish to contend with and obviously any water diverted for energy generation would lighten floods impacts. I am not sure what the current situation is with the Army Corps of Engineers and the diversion tunnel but I do know Lowell Creek does have the potential to provide electricity for Seward. Technology has come a long ways in the past 6 years and the engineer I mentioned is still interested in helping Seward examine its potential. In fact he worked very closely on the heat exchange project at the Sealife Center which has worked out very well. It has provided inspiration and a model for other facilities and communities in Alaska.

      There is a small hydro system on Marathon that is now owned and operated by AVTEC as well. It is too small to produce much power but excellent for demonstration and educational purposes though.

      It is high time we had an all-inclusive look at renewable energy potential in Seward.

      • Russ,

        Though I am a HUGE supporter of the idea that Seward should move towards being energy independent….I have to say, with a sad tone, that we can’t even get council/administration to agree to collect power from the Fire Island project. What makes you think they would even spend the money on the feasibility studies to do this? Oat/Dunham or not!
        I am sorry to say I have lost faith in our towns ability to evolve without being forced into it. I do my best to not bad mouth the Administration/Council because I see individuals not entities…. but when it comes to renewables these entities are a bit under-educated, unaware of the possibilities, unable to see the big picture/future and very disinterested.

        • zesty enterprise says:

          The Lowell Creek hydroelectric concept is free of many incendiary variables common to other hydro projects: no fish, no recreation, no roads, no big distance and no dam. But unfortunately, no support from the City PACAB. At least under Oates/Dunham.

          Though this City administration has its issues, maybe they are up to the task of helping implement a small (~2MB) hydro in Lowell Creek.

          • There are grant funds available for feasibility studies for renewable energy projects from the State’s Renewable Energy Fund that the city or a contractor could apply for. In fact the contractor for the study across the bay used just such funds. The engineer who has already put lots of his own time into studying Lowell Creek’s potential and finds it worthy of further study is still around and would work with the city exploring Lowell Creek hydro. He came and presented to council and PACAB in the past but the city showed no interest. Perhaps this administration would consider revisiting the project. We also have tidal potential and lots of wind. In the past when council shied from these ideas they claimed it was all “studied to death” and that Seward had no potential for wind, solar, geothermal, tidal or hydro. Technologies are advancing and fuel costs are ever-rising so any energy we can produce individually or collectively without fuel is worthy of close examination. This is a great conversation that I sincerely hope continues.

  3. Are there any renewable energy prospects on the PACAB priorities list anymore…. ? Should it be brought back to the attention of their executive liaison? Anyone can bring a resolution forward present…… sorry to the current EL if I create more work for you!

  4. ~in a small town... says:

    Energy alternatives that include new thinking should be welcomed, yet care
    should be exercised in discussions over how things are vs how they could be.

    “…but nobody, not the city, nor small businesses benefit from residents burning
    additional fuel…”

    This is not exactly true, since it is widely known how there always is a segment
    of a population that does see benefit through a participation in the network of
    fuel and energy distribution, and sometimes at obscene profit margins.

    Under-engineered and overpriced structures not worthy of a northern climate
    continue to see financing among the elite of the business classes whose job
    appears to gain income from a percentage of this generally poor oversight.

    Sturdy roofs, supported by thick strong and insulated walls, with durable under
    layment of support beams boards concrete and footings capable of doing a
    good long term task, should be at the ground level of every structure built here.

    But the basics are overlooked by those who have lobbied to keep certain
    evaluations high for the sake of finance mortgage banking and commission
    income, and how property tax evaluations are used to determine value is
    also at fault in energy inefficient & structurally unsound AK building designs.

    Why should someone pay the same for poor quality weak structure of a
    similar square footage as another would to have a sturdy one, in appraisal
    by someone who does not look into the durability & survivability issues?

    And the concept of using heat pump technologies to get warmth from an
    alpine lake, while it may work for a limited time or quantity of users, it is
    probably not such a grand idea for subdivisions of additional users to go
    into that prospect, since the total effect could cool a lake to a point where
    any spawning fish or living organisms may not survive over wintering there.
    While some will effectively study a possibility to death, either way, some of
    these concepts do not necessarily reflect adequate cause & effect results
    from implementation of the technologies.

    The well-known deep well geothermal possibilities are better if one can
    invest in that idea and if there is water at good depth in the project area.
    There are places all around where you’d find a lot of rock at that depth
    and surface or sub-surface water is sometimes barely potable, too.

    While the ‘conservative-values club’ could suggest they take up burning
    coal and keep burning wood, and go off-grid to keep a lid on their electric
    utility cost at places such as Summit Lake Lodge, the newcomer’s bent to
    embrace such interpretation of science and society away from reality is a
    part and parcel of the new set of problems long term answers have faced.

    And those of use here for a half century know how the off-grid business
    was for the early owners of Summit Lake Lodge; they couldn’t get a loan
    to improve much. Without electricity and adequate fire prevention, it was
    almost impossible to run a modern business due to lack of insure-ability.
    Plus the need to run diesel generation there essentially kept them back
    since even that was not cutting-edge at the time it was done & cost plenty
    so the owners kept someone there all year round, if not there themselves.

    With an ocean almost right out the front door of the Seward townsite,
    if not for the cost of electricity to make pumps and other systems work,
    the idea of using ocean water temperatures to offset some other heat
    costs seems like a fairly good idea on the surface of it. But can it be
    done and be sustained without the leverage of outside financial interest?

    There remains a need for power generation, & most large scale plans do
    present a major impact on the expected and traditional quality of life here.
    One can’t expect to continually ‘grow an economy’ to get out of current or
    future crisis, but use of better technologies & investments could work.

    To try and get more people to move to an area to supplement the tax base
    or user base of an area or its resources, generally adds to the first problem.
    Over-selling a service or product generally leads to shortages & higher cost.

    Tidal generation could take on different forms that won’t put wildlife through
    a giant blender, or require additional acres of ocean-front reservoirs to hold
    the inter-tidal volume a viable system may require. And the old concept of
    a Turnagain Arm tidal electrical generation project would need Big money.

    Anyway, this large of a topic has many variables and most answers begin
    with the individual use of energy and more valid methods of construction
    relative to the regional climate and a realization of how cold it can get here.
    There’s been ice ages in these hills and these fjords just won’t stay empty!

    ~in a small town…
    kenai mountains, alaska