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Heat Pump Technology at the SeaLife Center: Tours Offered October 13

By Kelley Lane for Seward City News-
Alaska Sea Life Center is successfully harnessing natural energy from Resurrection Bay to heat its interior space as well as the concrete approaches, using water piping located within the slabs. Photo: Kelley Lane

Like many like minded people, Darryl Schafermeyer and Andy Baker had a fortuitous first meeting. Schafermeyer was on the Port and Commerce Advisory Board (PACAB) at the time, as he still is. The PACAB had invited Baker to give a presentation to them about the feasibility of doing a small scale hydro project on Lowell Creek. Fortunately, Schafermeyer not only serves on the PACAB but also works for the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) as their Special Projects Director. A member of Schafermeyer’s staff, Dean Roadifer, had read an article about Japan using heat pump technology to effectively draw heat out of the ocean. Roadifer passed the idea along to Schafermeyer, who took the idea very seriously. When Andy Baker came to Seward for his PACAB presentation, Schafermeyer took the opportunity to pursue Baker’s expertise to design such a system for the ASLC.

As it turned out, the Lowell Creek hydro project, which was heartily supported by City Council at the time, has yet to materialize. The other project, the one that seemed less likely to reach reality, has come to pass. ASLC currently heats and cools all of their facilities using clean heat pump technology, powered by electricity. They have completely eliminated their reliance on heating oil, which used to cost them nearly fifteen thousand dollars per month.

Seward is a small town, and I have been fortunate to have met and interacted with Schafermeyer around town. Baker came to town this fall to continue the work of tweaking the Sea Life Center’s current system as well as thinking about designs to expand the technology to serve the public sector in downtown Seward. I was fortunate to connect with the two and be given a tour of the heat pump system housed behind closed doors at ASLC. The tour helped me understand how they magically transform Resurrection Bay waters into a heat source for one of our town’s largest indoor facilities.

Computer graphic showing live information about the heat pump system as it is in use. Photo: Kelley Lane.

To understand  how it’s possible for Resurrection Bay, which is generally considered a cold body of water, to provide heat, it helps to think of the bay as a giant solar panel. The water in our bay was heated by sunlight near Japan and the Philippines. The ocean currents create a circular rotation, called a gyre, that transports the water around the North Pacific ocean in a three year rotation. Perhaps some of you have seen last year’s release of ‘Finding Dory,’ an animated feature released by PIXAR. The animals get on board a roaring current, the East Australian Current, which helps them get to California more quickly. The ocean gyre that fills Resurrection Bay with warm water in the autumn months is a similar phenomenon. The water in the bay reaches its max temperature in November, usually about 56 degrees.

The science of how heat pumps work is both simple and complicated. In its most basic form, the heat pumps are able to take the heat that’s available in the ocean and compress it, then separate the warmer water from the colder water. Baker uses the example of how a common home refrigerator sucks the heat out of the warm food items placed into them, then shoots that warmth out into the surrounding room. The Sea Life Center uses an intricate system of pipes and heat pumps to separate the waters into ever warmer and colder waters. They then use the hot water, sometimes up to 194 degrees, to heat their facilities. Meanwhile, they use the cold water to cool their rooms of electronics, which are sensitive to overheating.

I left the tour full of new information and with a better understanding of how the technology works. In addition to learning about the ASLC system, I learned that a test well has been drilled in the Seward waterfront. It’s sitting in clear view, down in Waterfront Park, near the Skate Park, only I’d never noticed it until I knew what it was. The current hope is to implement a system that will serve the public buildings in downtown, including City Hall and the Annex Building, the Fire Station and the Library and Museum.

I met Baker by coincidence on the beach a few days later. We were both out walking south of Tonsina Point, with the beach walk available to us only because it was a low tide. “You must be out doing research,” I said. Baker paused and thought about my statement, and then agreed that he was. I had meant it as a tease, but also as a reflection of the impression that Baker’s mind is often at work on solving problems. He’s got an engineering brain, one of those minds that loves to tackle dilemmas. I’m guessing that’s what Darryl Schafermeyer saw in him when they met.

The Sea Life Center will be hosting tours of their heat pump system as part of the Energy Fair and Forum, at 5pm on Friday, October 13th. Sign ups for the tours will take place at AVTEC on the afternoon of the 13th, from 1-4pm.

Heat pump extraction requires extreme pressurization, thus necessitating super heavy duty equipment. Photo: Kelley Lane

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