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.
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.