Thawing out the ground

Many may have read Professor Eb Rice’s Alaska Press book, “Building in the North”. ( is at times comical, yet technical while being something the layperson can read with many anecdotes about Cold Climate building.  And permafrost is a major focus of the book with photos of places you may have been familiar driving by here in Fairbanks.  He points out well the catastrophic failure that has occurred when people build without special precautions- no matter how energy efficient the dwelling is.

There is another problem that some believe is looming, though, with melting permafrost- regardless if there is a building or not on it.  A recent study published in the Nature Climate Change journal estimates a fiscal cost of $43 trillion lost in the global economy due to their estimation of carbon emissions from the frosty soils thawing.  I looking at permafrost worldwide, the article predicts that as much if not twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere is located in these soils.

Whether this will bear out to be true or not, that amount of money is over half of the economic activity worldwide in 2014 (at ~$78 trillion).  Whereas Dr. Rice focused on the damage and remediation to buildings that failed due to being on these soils, the $43 trillion does not include any building or asset losses due to rigid, frigid soils becoming a slurried mess.  Linking scientific and economic models is not unusual, but of course regardless of the analysis, such studies then rely on the political system to create policy to avoid costs- and that is not always as easy to crunch, as are the numbers.

Heating season in the Interior

One small secret in Fairbanks that many folks don’t realize is that you can pump your own heating oil into 50 gallon drums or 5 gallon jerrycans as you fill the car!  With gas currently around $3.40/gal and vehicle diesel running $3.27/gallon, you can pick up #1 fuel oil- kerosene- for about $2.25/gal out of the back pump at a couple locations in town.

My own mechanic has said that the difference between the diesel in the two separate pumps is not great and can be used for multi-use.  Thus some people may be tempted to fill their diesel vehicles with the heating oil due to the price ~30% price difference; yet it is illegal due to evading transportation taxes on the #3.27/gal produce.  (The mechanic noted that he’s known of tanks being dipped by the authorities on the side of the road for detection of a dye put in to distinguish between the two product lines.  Quite a fine I’m told, if heating oil is found in a vehicle tank….).

With the purchase of a 12 volt pump that is rated for fuels, you can fill your own containers relatively cheaper.  Just half a decade ago it would have cost you almost double- over $4.00/gal anyway for heating oil.  Delivery prices from the bulk fuel oil suppliers run another 30-35 cents a gallon depending on whom you choose; one of the advantages is reducing the chance of spillage in transportation and transfer.  If you are looking to heat with oil this year, this may be a good time to fill ‘er up- before dividends come out and possible local prices are increased!

Price gouging?

I had gotten a listserv email today from a legislature who wanted to have an investigation per price gouging on the price of gas.  Generally, there was recognition that the  price of Oil per barrel had dropped by half the original price. The logical thought that the  price at the pump should be relatively correlated to the price of the raw product was noted as not being true.

The notion that there is ‘gouging’ runs intrinsically around the idea that the market price ‘fairly’ should be determined by the price of production, or in this case extracted and refined.  But we generally do not look at food that way, or name brand blue jeans.  People accept as ‘fair’ as what people are willing to pay.  There are instances that there may be collusion to create a monopoly, and there area fuel taxes that restrict how diesel can be bought (for instance the diesel for your home cannot be used in your car in part due to the lack of transportation taxes).

But it is local demand that by and large will determine the price of fuel, and the more ‘inelastic’ or inflexible a change in demand is  to a change in price, the greater the possibility that the final product will not be in line with the price of raw materials and production costs- in the long term anyway.

Methylammonium lead iodide perovskites?

Ever hear of these?  Good scrabble words to be sure….yet they are more important than a little entertainment.  As where Methane Hydrates are seen as the holy grail of North Slope energy production (and could change the shape of the energy economy if they could safely be extracted), perovskites may be the product that allows mid and low income folks to outfit their home roofs, carports and possibly even vehicles with solar generation.

The downfall of current solar panels (Photovoltaic- PV) is the size, bulk and cost which requires a huge capital outlay and makes it a long term investment with payback periods reaching a couple decades in some systems (depending on the utility’s Power Purchase Agreement price and extent of domestic use).  The silicon wafers that warm up, in a nutshell, induce excited and unorganized electrons to create current.  With a good charge controller loading it onto battery banks the expense is for a whole system really.  With net metering (if allowed by your utility) the cost of investment for production per kilowatt is less than if you bank all the power, and a lot of people can use this ‘trade off’ system justify buying silicon panels, which notably are far cheaper than ten years ago, falling in some cases 7 to 10 fold in price when compared to today’s deals.

Yet coming on the scene with a much more dramatic production cost are perovskites.  This material simply is easier and lighter to produce.  Silicon cells are made up of ultra this wafers that have to be cut from the mineral.  Perovskites on the other hand, are made from pouring chemical solutions onto an absorbable flat surface.  So while PV panels have just been inching to be competitive to fossil fuels, with gaining on 20% efficiency perovskites may pop through as preferential.  Their one downfall is- moisture.  They do degrade.  On some products that are protected from elements or short lived that will not be a big deal.  Anyway, keep your eye on the horizon for possibly cheaper materials to heat your seasonal remote camps now- as well as mobile vehicles at some point (provided the available surface area is large enough).

What will you burn it in…..

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Air Quality has a graph from  their website analyzing the comparative fuels in Fairbanks.  It is similar to the analysis I completed earlier this week, yet it adds one more component- figuring the combustion appliance efficiency.  Fuel is one thing when figuring how much heat you will get, but the potential of the appliance will be a constraint.

Cold Climate Housing Research Center has a nifty guide about the entire systems that may be used in residential buildings:

Alaska Housing Finance Corporation was a partner in this also.  Take a look at the type of system you have, the fuels it requires, their prices, and consider what will get you through at a relatively low effort and cost for the next seven years.  Check out the Anchorage Home Show September 19-20 for ideas on whole systems that may help your heating bill.

Winter-what’s it going to cost me…..

Though it hit freezing in some places around Fairbanks in July (and August) and the leaves have turned downhill from here, the current temperatures and forecasts indicate the probability of a somewhat mild winter (before guffawing, recall we only hit the -40’s in a couple week period solely in February last winter….).  Irregardless of how mild it may be though, you are going to have to plunk down some of the $2,200 or so you get from your dividend for stocking up on some kind  of energy fuel (if you already haven’t).

Obviously your current heating appliance is probably going to dictate what fuel you’ll use, but with the drop in fuel oil, relatively new local processed wood product, and the distinct possibility of community wide piped natural gas within the next half decade this may be the time to reassess switchover for a new burner/fuel.  How do the raw fuels themselves (not accounting for stove efficiencies) rank amongst each other?

Yesterday I took a couple hours calling local popular vendors, cross checking prices, comparing BTU values and coming up with the cost of a million BTUs (MBTU) for each fuel.  I came up with the following chart (based on 9/10/15, where by the way, Brent crude oil was running $45/barrel when I listened- up $7  or so from a couple weeks ago when I made an entry discussing the converging parity of local heating oil and dried wood prices). Take a look at the prices and ranking. And what ever you do, obviously DON’T plug into the wall a bunch of 1500watt buddy heaters as your primary heat for the homestead this winter!

Fuel Type Cost of 1 MBTU
Coal $15.00
Wood(Birch mix) $16.33
Pellets $17.88
#2 oil $18.95
Manufactured Log $20.63
Wood(Spruce) $20.72
Natural Gas $23.35
Propane $27.63
Electricty $64.48

Wood heating systems for schools- and neighborhoods

There are several examples of schools in the Interior and SE Alaska who have been able to keep up with the rising heating costs this past half decade by converting (at least partially) from fuel oil to wood as their primary heat. In most cases, the boilers gasify the wood for high efficiency and usually are taking in whole logs.

There are some communities back east (New England states) however, that are using pellets for their school heating.  And also for grouping of homes; that is, heating neighborhoods. One advocate in Concord, NH, is the non-profit  Northern Forest Center. It has in the past subsidized high-efficiency pellet boilers in “model neighborhoods”; such as one of just over 3 dozen homes, apartments and an art center (in Berlin, NH) which installed pellet boilers about a half decade ago .

When buying in bulk, large facilities can buy pellets at approximately a third less than we can in Alaska.  (The energy load back East- residential- is approximately 80% fossil fuel).  And the void that has been created in the paper and board markets has allowed the wood fuel manufactures to concentrate on pellet production, so supply is well off.  Granted, with oil prices dropping there may not be the strong  economic advantage of switching to wood which there was 5 years ago, yet there is also no guarantee what is going to happen to oil prices in the future- and there is no doubt that they are much more variable than the price of wood over time!

Charged up and ready to go….

“They’re scaling up from smartphones and into smartgrids. They’re moving out of niche markets and creeping into the mainstream, signaling a tipping point for forward-looking technologies such as electric cars and rooftop solar panels. ”

What are these marvels which are making formerly cost prohibitive technologies into a common option for many consumers?  Batteries.   Old timers will tell you that there were electric cars somewhat less than a century ago.  Various chemicals for dry and wet have been made of various chemicals in the past several decades.  Rechargeable batteries have taken over the market for many electronics since the beginning of this century.  Read an article of late which puts into perspective just how freeing battery improvements will make consumers.  There is talk even of ‘democratizing’ happening in part with batteries.  (Read

The big thing with these new battery technologies that can change society is due to the simple function- making energy portable!

In the news: Immigration, migration…..climigration?

You may not have been aware that the President this week took a trip to the border and confronted heat on-  “Climigration”.  I’m speaking of the far west border of Alaska against the Pacific Ocean at the little eskimo village of Kivalina.  Due to storm surges and permafrost shores deteriorating away, the village had been marked in a Government Accounting Office report to congress a dozen years or so ago for relocation; climate related, the word climigration was coined to describe such movements. A thick description, albeit a couple years old now, can be found at:

Biomass unleashed can release catastrophic carbon? (What?)

As many of you recall, our weather this year has been anything but typical.  Temps in Jan. edging up toward the freezing mark (32F degrees) during the day, February returning to the -40 at nights most of us are used to, and then we not just cleared break up in May, but many lawns cleared of snow!  Somewhat of an easy winter on heating utilities, all in all.  And then we had a brutally dry late Spring summer up to July- with over 400 forest concurrent fires statewide with edging up toward 2 million acres burnt.
Though burning biomass is seen as “carbon neutral” from an accounting point of view when done in energy production, some such as Chris Mooney ( see the troubling aspect of our increased Alaskan fires as related to negative climate change impacts.  With the majority of the state being made up of  permafrost and thermokarst lakes, we have frozen organic rich soils do not decay much before freezing.
 And so the scarification that takes place during forest fires by removing  the cover vegetation thus makes it more exposed to passive solar heat (as well as the soil thawing from ground fires).  Some fear that this catalyst toward thawing the permafrost will let loose of massive amounts of carbon dioxide.  [As far as the thawing of thermokarst lakes go,  professor Katy Walters-Anthony had been measuring the increasing amount of methane bubbles coming off thermokarst lakes via satellite imagery].  When July rolled around, an opposite effect came about in the Interior and we had drenching rain, similar to our Southeast Maritime coast right into September!
All the more reason to look for ways to assist fuel reduction by harvesting biomass that can be used in the winter when we can contain and control how- and where it burns.

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