Fairbanks company hopes wood-drying kiln will lower costs and help air quality

Standing before a pile of wood chips at the North Pole site of the former Superior Pellet Fuels, which Usibelli Investments acquired last month, are from left: Chad Schumacher, Aurora Energy Solutions general manager; Joe Usibelli Jr., Usibelli Investments managing member; Rob Brown, Aurora Energy Solutions president. Credit Aurora Energy Solutions

A Fairbanks-based company hopes to begin construction in a couple of weeks on a facility that will dry firewood so it will burn cleaner. Aurora Energy Solutions said the firewood kiln will be built in an industrial area near the old coal-fired Chena power plant that will supply heat for the kiln.

Aurora Energy Solutions General Manager Chad Schumacher said the company will get to work on the building that’ll house the firewood kiln soon after the first truckload of equipment arrives.

“We’re looking at having it show up immediately after the Fourth of July holiday,” he said.

Schumacher said the goal is get the kiln up and operational before fall, so the company can begin drying firewood in September.

“We are going to get pretty aggressive with that construction schedule so that we are fully erected on that system before the end of August,” he said.

That should give Aurora Energy Solutions about three months to dry as much wood as possible before the plant that produces heat for the kiln will have to divert that steam back into the district heating system that warms most of downtown. Starting next year, company officials plan to dry firewood from April through November, when demand for the district heat is lowest.

“During their non-peak-heating months, that’s when we really want to target the most use on this kiln,” Schumacher said.

Company President Rob Brown said that will require the Chena power plant to burn a bit more coal over those warm months to heat the kiln. He said his company hasn’t figured out exactly how much more coal will be burned over those three months, but he reckons it’ll be less than 1% more coal per year.

“There’s so many variables,” Brown said. “It’s going to be really hard for us to pinpoint and say ‘Well, this is how much more coal we’re burning because of this.’ ”

The Chena plant, which began operating in 1954, burns about 210,000 tons of coal per year. One percent of that amount comes to about 2,100, so based on Brown’s estimate the kiln will require burning an additional 2,100 tons of coal annually. Brown said the 27.5 megawatt plant will be adjusted to produce more steam during the months the kiln is operating, and less electricity. But he doesn’t expect that’ll cause any problems.

“Y’know, it is a big deal for the power plant to have another district heat customer,” he said, “(but) it’s not so large that it’s going to swing us around, from a power-production or district-heat standpoint.”

The Chena plant is owned by Aurora Energy, which like Aurora Energy Solutions is owned by Usibelli Investments – which is a subsidiary of the Usibelli Coal Mine. All of which are likely to gain economically from the firewood kiln. But Brown, a former vice president with Usibelli Coal Mine, said the goal is produce drier firewood through efficient use of the plant’s resources.

“I see this helping the power plant just be a little more efficient, being able to get the most use out of that steam,” he said.

Schumacher said the kiln will boost woodstove efficiency, because consumers won’t have to burn as much firewood, which will save them money and reduce emission of pollutants that foul the Fairbanks area’s air quality.

“That’s not just an emissions or an air-quality advantage,” he said. “It’s a cost-saving advantage.”

But there’s an environmental downside to burning those additional 2,100 tons of coal to run the firewood kiln: the climate-changing greenhouse gases the Chena power plant will produce to run the kiln. According to the state Department of Environmental Conversation’s 2015 Alaska Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, Aurora Energy produced more than 331,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that year.

Local air-quality advocate Jimmy Fox agrees it’ll help reduce the Fairbanks area’s air pollution. But he said that benefit will be limited if the kiln-dried firewood is available to only those who can afford it.

“The idea of providing discounts or even free firewood to folks that are facing challenges and paying their bills I think is something that ought to be considered,” he said.

Fox is a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Sustainability Commission, and he said the kiln is a great idea. But he said it will take more than that to solve the persistent air-quality problem, like programs that help area residents better insulate their homes.

“The community needs to think hard about this, because we’re looking at mandatory 5% reduction plan here very soon,” he said.

Fox said disadvantaged residents who must heat their homes with wood because it’s a cheaper fuel will be hard-pressed to comply with stricter state measures. And he said they likely won’t be able to afford kiln-dried firewood. So he said state or federal assistance should be made available to help them.

“Removing a barrier to getting dry firewood into the hands of people who need it most seems like the right thing to do,” Fox said.

Schumacher said Aurora Energy Solutions hasn’t yet set the price for its kiln-dried firewood. He said the company will do that before it begins selling the wood this fall.