Alaska Forum for the Environment


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Last week Extension had a booth at the Alaska Forum for the Environment.  We were getting information about radon, as well as offering new Alaska Center for Energy and Power research briefs that have recently been released!  Many tribes were present and it was good to communicate with the EPA funded General Assistance Program (IGAP) workers about the extra resources we have for radon funding this year.   Many signed up and we’ll be testing homes, tribal buildings and community dwellings for radioactivity with the connections made.

Also important was the presentation with myself and UAF College of Mines professor Debu Misra on the advantages of utilizing biochar for growing better yields, removing trace heavy metals from waters used in mining as well as giving greater efficiencies to ground cover vegetation put onto mining lands during reclamation.  (An UAA professor collaborated afterward toward funding we’ll seek for better biochar research).  You may have missed public workshops given on home modifications per aging in place, remote energy solutions as well as on radon yet keep an open eye as the intention is to teach such classes in Anchorage again!


The direction of oil….


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We are at a point this week where Brent crude oil was almost $70 a barrel.  The last time is was this high was December of 2014.  At that time it was on a downward slide from $113 dollars a barrel six months earlier.  (The current $70 price spot is the result of a trending climb from a low almost two years ago of $28 a barrel).   Our state revenue has had structural difficulties in regards to oil output, revenue rates, outside pricing influences and all yet this latest uptick in prices as well as policy changes that look promising for oil development in the state has some producers gearing up their activity.

Last week ConocoPhillips announced they are thinking that almost a half million of  barrels (daily) could be sent down the Pipeline System into the 2020’s, adding to the current half million barrels flowing daily.  That is with known fields that can be tapped, not including off shore north slope reserves. As often happens, other small less well known companies are mobilizing as well.  They represent different phases of getting oil out and down the pipeline, yet one thing is for sure- market and political forces are motivating companies for more oil development in Alaska.

It’s cold, but….


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With an overnight low in the Interior getting to -30 many residents seem to have gotten acclimatized to the fall style of weather we’ve had most of the winter; forgotten are the days of  several weeks of evening weather getting down to -40 or -50.  From a practical view, this warmer winter weather has given the traditionally dry Interior of Alaska some challenges.  Though there seems to be plenty of snow cover to protect septic tanks and insulate lines, the frozen rain from a couple weeks ago has been playing havoc on driving and power lines.

With a vehicle pile up of close to a couple dozen vehicles yesterday, it was clear that the frozen rain under the snow of last week is creating a hazard- especially when we start diving into sub-zero temps when any past moisture on the road becomes slick.  With hundreds of people out of power last night (~-25F degrees) it is obvious that the wet, heavy coastal like snow that recently hit has become a liability to the power lines.  Electrical crews from GVEA have been getting hit with repairing several spread out areas of the Borough and power lines go down.  Have you seen the blue flashes in the sky at night the last couple weeks? If so, it may have been several houses or a neighborhood losing power.

With these recent trends in warmer weather it creates hazards when normal winter sets in at small intervals- and so the question is, do you have an emergency supply kit of 7 days of water, lighting, fuel, and various necessary materials ready on hand??

Global warming, cold war?


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Those who have been keeping an eye on the Northern Passage from the Bering Strait to Scandinavia and Northern Europe know that it has been become an economic interest as to who controls the route.  Shipping alone is important, but also access to oil (and rare earth medals) will be a motivator for expanding out from the Northern coastline as the ice melts.  Likewise, the long sought after Northwest Passage that goes from the Bering Strait to Nova Scotia has been tested and should be open for commercial travel in just a bit more than a dozen years.

One of the key instruments for any nation hoping to have a lead role in using the waters of either passage is ice breakers.  The U.S. has less than can be counted on one hand with a couple in the planning/building stages.  (In contrast, the Russians have over 3 dozen).  And while it is the Coast Guard rather than the Navy that has handled these ships, the unprecedented addition to next model will be missiles.  This comes as Russia has increased its fleet of icebreakers and it may be that though there has been general cooperation around important issues such as search and rescue, oil spill recovery and contaminants, ice clearing, etc… this could be a symbol of the frosting of relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Polar amplification….

When looking at the increase of frost free days and the  increases in mean temperatures,  Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the lower 48 states….but why?   To some extent the warming perpetuates itself, so if there is less snow on the ground during the shoulder seasons (March, Sept, Oct) then more of the radiant energy that used to bounce off the snow right back into the atmosphere, will instead be absorbed into the ground and melt more snow.

To a lessening effect, sea ice plays a part.  The ocean itself can be a heat sink when sheets of white sea ice are missing (and cannot reflect solar radiation upward.)  Thus ground cover has an effect to how much of the sun’s radiation bounces off without much effect, and how much is absorbed and thus warming the earth (or reflected back into the atmosphere with the intensity of white being at the poles).  Author of the Alaska Solar Manual, Richard Seifert, found that he could take advantage of solar “bounce” off the snow due to a large patch of land in front of his solar panels being clear of vegetation.  Solar radiation and snow do mix!



Renewables in Alaska

I spoke with someone today who said they wanted to get a solar panel for their 24’x20′ home- because they like solar.  Battery storage, selling kW to the local utility, and using fluids in solar thermal panels were all new and in this case the idea came up when talking about a specific use (which was powering LCD lights).  Individual use is typically a way to augment overall electrical costs for a household.

On the community level, the use of renewables in Alaska varies- largely by region.  The Alaska Energy Authority funded a study by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power which came out last week, and it spells out how wind, solar electric, biomass, and several other energy technologies have been implemented by 100 rural Alaskan communities (generally to augment the cost of producing energy by co-generating with diesel oil generators).

The study looks at the installation, operating and maintenance costs of renewable energy systems.   It is somewhat of a unique set of factors to look when compared to other regions of the U.S.  In Alaska there are dis-segmented  rural small independent power stations that serve anywhere from less than a hundred to a couple thousand households which means that storage and reserves are all that more important of an element.  This needs to be accounted for when tying in various sources of variable, renewable energy.-

New federal assessment quantifies Alaska’s energy resources

A new study has come out with contributions from the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the U.S. Geological Survey stating there may be 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in addition to nearly 18 billion barrels of oil.  These recoverable estimates included all different styles of ownership as well as on/off shore deposits; half the gas would be onshore and half of it offshore.

While the assessment was based off in part of estimates associated with certain geological features, the increase from a study just eight years ago can be somewhat contributed to changes in technology which allow for more oil or gas recovery from what is called “undiscovered” reserves.  Geology, statistics and applied engineering all assist in making a North Slope or even Statewide inventory of what can be accessed in 2017.

While industry makes estimates on reserves for purposes of bidding on leases, they may take into account their own rates and amounts based on the technology they utilize and with their own geologists and methods. Often those will be proprietary.  One thing is for sure though- since the U.S. Administration has been looking at a stronger energy dominance in the world markets, Alaska will yet be seen as a energy supply driver going forward.




How much oil?

While Congress just passed a new tax bill that opened up opportunities for commercial drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, there has been also an eye west of that area at the National Petroleum Reserve.  A study issued by the U.S. Geological Survey now estimates the recoverable oil as 8.7 billion barrels (between 5 and 6 times the original estimate of 1.5 bbl, or billion barrels estimated just over a half decade ago).   Meanwhile, another government agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, put out a new estimate for undiscovered oil in the Beaufort Sea that was higher than a couple years ago.

While politics may be suspect in an increase of reserves, it is said that new discoveries have changed our geologic knowledge, especially of the reserves in the Nanushuk and Torok geological formations.  Time will tell if drilling begins how much of the increase is ‘new knowledge or not!



That’s a bright idea…

The item we use daily, the light bulb, has quite a history.  Most people credit Thomas Edison with the invention yet creating light from electricity pre-dated Edison by many decades.  Around 1810 for instance, a couple of batteries and charcoal rods illuminated and then if was almost 100 years later that a filament was created.  It was then the adding of a glass globe surrounded by nitrogen which caused the amount of illumination to double.  What Edison did as an improvement was commercialize its use with his Pearl Street Station as a mass producer (and then distribution center) to the public.

Three decades later florescent bulbs came out with a lot of inventions from WWII.  Twisty CFLS (compact florescent lights) came about in the mid 1970’s (not yet ready for public use) and 15 years prior LED’s (light emitting diode) came out.  But the LED’s were restricted to red, then green and finally blue light with a coating that eventually gave it a whitish blue hue.

Each step of the way efficiencies were increased while reducing the amount of heat output was decreased.   Often the best way to use less energy in a building is to swap out the less efficient (from a lighting point of view) bulbs for the more efficient ones. For instance, LED’s use 75% less electricity than the glass globe incandescent bulbs with filaments.

Keep your eyes open for more efficient lights as they come out into the markets- then compare the cost savings from electrical conservation with the longevity and final cost of the bulb to see if it is worth getting considering the amount of time you think you will be using the light.   You can measure your use of at least lamp lights in your home with devices such as the Kill-o-Watt.   Keep the home fires burning- but efficiently!

Biomass electrification in Fairbanks at the hockey rink?

There has been an effort over the past year to get a Volter 30kW biomass gasifying boiler installed into the Borough’s Big Dipper arena.  The thought has been that such a machine could be used as a source of electricity as well as heat. Various presentations had been made at Alaska Center for Energy and Power, The Rural Energy Conference, The Alaska Wood Energy Conference, etc…  to speak to a partnership between Finland’s Volter Ltd. and the North Star Borough government. As of now there are just over a dozen of these boilers in Scandinavia, Canada, and Australia.

It may come down to a couple of Borough meetings to determine if the project is still on.  While 30kW is not a large scale (enough for around 10 Fairbanks homes) it was originally going to be funded by the a state grant program which the award may not be available in the future on this project.

Ordinances should be  introduced to the Assembly Thursday night (12/14/15), and ultimately voted on on January 11.  There will be public participation at a January 4 Borough meeting. If both instances pass then the boiler will be able to be utilized and data/information gleaned from its performance at the Big Dipper.  Keep an eye out to see if both votes pass….