Rural Energy Conference 2016

This week the UAF Alaska Center for Energy and Power will be hosting their every 16 month rural energy conference.  It begins tomorrow morning at the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks.  It runs through to Thursday of this week and will have over 4 dozen unique speakers.  You can read more about it at:  There has been focus the last year or two on grid vulnerability in the Lower 48 through possible cyber attacks and events from outside sources.

Alaska has the unique distinction of being its own ‘microgrid’ and that has some security, but also some challenges in electrical generation and distribution particularly when looking at the state as a whole.  The ‘railbelt’ has a type of coordinated workings, yet rural communities are often on to themselves when it comes to fuel transport and power balancing through a community.  If you can’t make it to the conference, be sure to see the videos that are put up each year at ;  and contact Max Frey at with any other questions!

Don’t be fuelish!!

Here’s your chance to get to work while improving your cardiovascular system- and the community’s respiratory health!  Organizations around Fairbanks are competing with each other in the annual “Don’t be Fuelish” competition. Employees can save the most fuel traveling to and from work without driving alone in a motor vehicle. The organization with the best combination of saving fuel when ranked by a weighted average of total miles, miles per capita, and days per participating employee will receive the prestigious Fuel Can Award.

The competition began today (April 5) though people can log back to  April 1 through September 30.  To save fuel for your workplace, you can car pool with a co-worker or neighbor, take the bus, bike, walk or run to work. You can even use a combination of these methods to get to work. All you need to do is keep track of the number of miles you save by using a fuel-efficient commute and record those miles on the handy Don’t be Fuelish Calendar, and at the end of each month report your non-fuelish ways on the supplied form. To determine the winner of the competition, we will tally the results to determine which group has the least fuelish employees. Miles you save on your commute using the above mentioned methods helps your organization in pursuit of the prestigious Fuel Can Award.

So join us in this effort to save fuel this summer, keep the air cleaner, and keep you fit. Any effort you put into this will help. Keep in touch at

Indoor air quality in the Spring

I was in a village on the Yukon River last week assisting the Environmental Specialist on testing for Carbon Monoxide and Radon.  After flying in as the end of the line (due to volcanic ash diverted the plane back to Fairbanks rather than continuing on down river to its original destination) the tribal office truck picked me up and we were off home to home.  Most of the HUD homes had a HRV unit right inside the back entry way by the boiler rooms. A couple already had a carbon monoxide alarm in place, yet they were the style that would set off an audio beeping when the level was above a certain level.  (Typically, 30 parts per million (ppm) is the point at which someone should be concerned, leave the area, ventilate and check combustion sources).

We were instructing folks how to put into place continuous monitors which have a red LED light displayed with the current value. They are plugged in typically to a 110v outlet, yet if there is an outage, there is a back up 9v battery. These homes used propane cook stoves as well as fuel oil boilers.   We also were  putting into homes charcoal sashes that collect radon gas for analysis at a lab about a week later.

In the evening we had a session which was loaded with about a dozen and a half people.  We covered ventilation, moisture control and energy efficiency as well as the properties of Carbon Monoxide.  All in all, it was a good visit and chance to drop off home evaluations from a healthy homes perspective!






Today Brent crude oil went just above $40/ barrel.  Roughly, a barrel of #1 heating oil provides just over seven MBTUs (Million British Thermal Units).  A third of a cord of Birch, and a half a cord of Spruce would roughly be equivalent to a barrel of oil in raw BTU’s.  (This is not taking into account the moisture content of wood, or the size for the smooth feeding of wood into a furnace).  From a utilitarian view, processed fuel oil is quite a bit easier to deal with as it flows to the burn chamber uniformly (and you don’t need to worry about drying for optimal BTU value like wood).

On the road system, fuel oil is running as little as $1.53/gallon. Thus with about $85/barrel you can get the same rough BTU’s with an equivalent of $170/cord of Spruce and $255/cord of Birch.   Burning efficiency will not yield all those BTU’s.  It  depends on what you are burning in and how you have dried/handled the wood.  With oil, you have to get your own container, pump and haul it- yet if you were collecting wood you would probably have to get your own truck/trailer, chainsaw (running off gas) and haul it.  Spillage of oil can become a hazardous waste whereas spillage of cord wood is just a big pain to pick it all up and stack it again.

While fuel oil is a concern for some per carbon emissions (with wood being carbon ‘neutral’ in many accountant’s eyes) there are problems with wood smoke particularly with  incomplete combusted wood stoves which are a air quality concern for others due to the particulates.

So, one of the key factors for many Alaskan’s of whether they will heat with oil or wood comes down to location, available time and personal preference.  Those inland off the road system may be surrounded by wood that is an actual liability (as wildfire fuel) and may be looking at almost double the price of oil delivered to their tank due to the transportation cost to fly or barge in the fuel. There may also not be pressures to keep down emission levels from inefficient wood stoves in such rural places. Plus there may be unstructured time in the day to ‘tend fire’.  In the city, it is easier to trust the oil tap to keep the BTU’s flowing to the furnace during the day (or may also have natural gas to do the trick) as well as knowing that you may be contributing to the global carbon scene yet keeping the local air clean.

With the shifting fuel prices the last couple years, have you changed your heating source?  For any reasons give?

Down on the border…..

This past week I went to the Yukon-Alaskan border and visited with the mayor, firefighter, policeman of the last community before going into Canada- border city.  It has a total of 5 families that reside there and because it is out of the reach of the utility for the Tok area, all the electricity is created from a couple 100kw diesel generators.  The fuel is not all that expensive as it comes in large bulk quantities to stock the first truck stop on the American side.

Being that the community is built in a bog/swamp, there is a good amount of work done on the foundation to work with the adjustments the ground has made. As it is also permafrost deep below the well casing has 24/7 heat trace, and with the hard rock shist nearby, radon has been found in the area yet most likely will not be present at the community.  Since it is gold country and the arsenic level is high in the water samples, there is continual remediation via reverse osmosis to mitigate this.

Most notably, was the intermittent phone service on the land like giving out- due to old WWII era strung telegraph wire getting caught up in moose antlers as the poles have sunk and leaned over through the decades.  All this to say that in Alaska there are continual challenges to building yet even more with maintaining a community, and this ‘last stop’ in the state is a good illustration of the continual proactive nature of Alaskans!

Well water quality in the Tanana Valley

There have been concerns in the North Pole area of ground water being contaminated and unfit for drinking and cooking due to chemical pollutants from the fuel refinery over the last couple years.  And there are plenty of people who collect water for drinking and cooking from the various laundry mats/Water Wagon stations in Fairbanks due to not having running water.  Yet some haul water due to natural arsenic in the water, as it is a toxin when taken in by food or drink.  It is not unusual to have arsenic wherever there are gold deposits in the geology.

There is a broad sweep of symptoms that can be associated from ingesting arsenic which can effect the heart, pancreas and even blood. Some symptoms are immediate such vomiting, nausea, and cramping.  The key is to stop taking in the contaminated source so that the body can begin to filter and eliminate it.  There are known recommendation limits for ingestion from the EPA (10 parts per billion, or 10 ppb).  For those who bathe in arsenic laden water it is 500 ppb, and for those watering produce which will be eaten the recommendation is to take in 100 ppb or less. The good news is that depending on your well water system distribution, there are reverse osmosis systems which can reduce arsenic at a sink faucet or at your pressure tank. After figuring in initial installation costs, the disposable filters will be the key cost factor to help you determine whether it is more cost effective to haul water from a laundry mat/watering station- or pump it up from your well.

For those  in the Fairbanks area who are wanting more information, there will be a discussion session held by the State Department of Health and Social Services on Wednesday March, 16 2016 beginning 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Two Rivers Church of the Nazarene, 4629 Chena Hot Springs Road. You can also sign up for free testing for arsenic in well water and be tested yourself (if you haven’t eaten fish or seafood for two to three days prior). You can also view the Division of Epidemiology’s information about arsenic in the Fairbanks area conducted almost four decades ago at, and about the health effects at For more information on the Two Rivers discussion session and testing, contact Sandrine Deglin,  health educator with Health and Social Services at (907)269-8028 or

Radon workshop

There were about three dozen residents who came to hear about radon last night, from myself and Richard Seifert.  Rather than have a typical slideshow, it was more of a discussion.  Richard shared personal motivation(s) of what got him into testing his own home and the alarm he found when the concentration of radon gas was well over the EPA’s action level recommendation of 4 pico curies of radon gas per liter of air. He also shared information of how the outreach program had beginnings in Juneau with the nuclear medicine staff running the program in the late 1980’s (before oversight was transferred to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation as an indoor air quality issue).

Though Ilya Benesch from the Cold Climate Housing Research Center was not present, his video (on the Cooperative Extension YouTube site) was shown on how to build a home in Fairbanks with the essential materials in place to evacuate radon out of a home after the build is finished, if necessary.  Personal stories from several people were shared- some telling of successful mitigation, and another of years long battle with mitigating radon so that it would fall below the EPA’s action level.

There was also time to show a number of resources. Each person present received a colored EPA zone chloropleth map showing the counties/boroughs in relation to each other as far as radon concentrations (in an aggregate sense).  The Extension publication, Understanding Testing  for and Mitigating Radon (RAD-00760), was handed out as well as a tour given of where to find it in the online catalog. And the leader item, long term radon test kits were given out.  Though these kits could not be utilized for a full year due to early expiration, they all were sufficient to provide at least a 90 day sample- which is the minimum required by the testing lab in order to receive results.

In general, it was a well attended, lively hour and a half session.  But if you were not able to attend, you can call me at 907-474-6366 for any additional information or technical assistance on radon.  And remember, the ONLY way you can know if you have radon (the second leading cause of lung cancer) is to TEST.

Slip sliding away is NOT the way to make your day…..

Sorry, I just couldn’t help but make a rhyming title on these spring-like break up days…at the very beginning of March!!  One of the problems of course is that snow and ice melt during the day when it creeps above 32 degrees, and then drops to or below zero for the evening.  In the morning, you may then have a very flat, smooth skating rink -right in front of your steps or car door.  So how do you stay upright on these mornings?

In one coastal community, the local hospital has boxes of surgical booties for the taking at their entryway.  I’m told these work well to keep a person upright.  Wearing pull on spikes over your shoes or even wearing ice climbing shoes to make it to and from the home/workplace and car (just be sure to pull them off before going into the store on tile or other slick surfaces to avoid skating there!!)  Also chicken wire can be tacked down on ramps where there is a thin, slick sheen in the morning on the surface wood.  There is the option of also buying various ‘ice breaker mats’, ‘no-slip ice carpets’, and ‘electric snow melt mats’.  Put these terms into a search engine and you’ll have plenty of retail options!

Since these are temporary additions for breakup, remember that surface additions don’t have to stay in place even into the summer.  These items may not even be attractive, but as an answer to prevent broken bones they may be preferable to the alternative!

Is there a market for a new ‘compact’ car?

Those who remember the long lines to the gas pumps during the 1970’s energy crisis probably recall the comparativley tiny imports which boasted 30+mpg which quickly followed.  By the late 1970’s gas stabilized out at about a half a buck a gallon.  Now our fuel is running just about three times that- yet compared to paying double the amount about this time two years ago, tourism and travel will probably be favorable to Alaska this summer (as it was last) due to the ‘cheap’ fuel costs.  Yet would this be a good time to introduce a super efficient compact car for city driving? One that boasts of 80+mpg??

Elio Motors is advertising a very small commuter car for $6,800 which is to be released at the end of this year.  While it only seats two people and only has one door as well as three wheels, it is being marketed as highway and side road safe. Part of its boasted cost savings is that it runs just over half a ton in overall weight.  If you go by the websites ‘counter’ of how many people have ordered one, it looks like there are over 50,000 requested.

Time will tell if the popularity catches on, if they are practical in winter, if they have easily accessible parts, etc…or whether this is merely a futuristic Popular Mechanics prototype that has prematurely made it to market. If you happen to get one or know someone who has signed up, let me know how they operate!

Permafrost survey in the Gold Stream Valley


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With all of the strange weather patterns the last few years, some people are wondering how stable their ground and foundations will be in years to come.  Stories last summer of sink holes developing in the Goldstream Valley and knowledge of thawing permafrost are realities that can have an effect on homes, out buildings, driveways, etc…

Next Wednesday (2/17) there will be a meeting at 7pm in the Ken Kunkel Community Center, 2645 Goldstream Road, Fairbanks (adjacent to the Goldstream General Store).  The gathering is for residents to learn about an upcoming month long survey project to map permafrost distribution in the Goldstream Valley watershed (from DNR-Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys and the University of Alaska Fairbanks).

At the meeting they will share about the  RESOLVE airborne electromagnetic collection system, which  is designed to map the spatial distribution of data points of the electrical resistivity of the valley and will be used to help interpret where the ground is frozen or where it is not.This system is a low power system that does not have health risks or hurt communication devices.(Data gathering  helicopters will not fly directly over houses.)  The final 3D map of permafrost distribution will be looked at for understanding the area’s  groundwater/surface flow and to study the effects of  climate change on permafrost as it is assumed that trapped greenhouse gasses in and underneath permafrost will be released when permafrost thaws. What do you think the correlation between climate warming and greenhouse gas from (discontinuous, or intermittent) permafrost will be?  I don’t know either and look forward to hear from the investigators what they find in Goldstream!


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