Biochar for ‘catching’ the carbon

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The USBI’s Biochar 2016 Conference just took place the past couple days!

It was labeled: “The Synergy of Science and Industry: Biochar’s Connection to Ecology, Soil, Food, and Energy”

It was located at Oregon State University, Corvallis OR and the focus was not just academic.  In fact, it was loaded with  entrepreneurs and small business owners who in the past years have made investments to develop commercial markets- one including an Alaskan vendor. There were over 5000 publications last year alone, and there had been the feeling that there has been a need to bring everyone together to swap information, lessons learned, and work to chart a way  forward for biochar to develop commercially. The conference was rich with  stakeholders in biochar research as well as  private sector folks and a few academics.

 

This information is going to be useful to instruct the School of Natural Resources and Extension for 3 grants wrapped around biochar as a solution to regulate moisture, microbes and nutrients in a thawing soil in many parts of the state (due to climate change).  We look forward working with the folks met from different soil type regions and uses in the next year or so as we look at 1) harvesting the heat from biochar 2) utilize the char itself!

 

Oil starts to take off…..

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Hopes for a big “freeze” are heating up oil prices — once again.

As one article put it this morning, ‘Hopes for a big “freeze” are heating up oil prices– once again.”‘ The article takes a demand side look at what is moving the market and noted that while two weeks ago oil had fallen below $40/ barrel, it had jutted past $45.50/barrel in the past three days.  That would be over a 10% increase in less than a half a week.  Again, demand driven even during a slow economic time.

The freeze per se has to do with quota setting that may occur within OPEC and Russia.  The scare is on due to sudden meetings coming up this fall with the cartel (in North Africa). This heating of prices may be a bit too early though, and backfire. For one, supply is still robust and in fact the cartel is pumping the most oil ever.

Frackers are starting to get back into the game in mid-America, and refineries have been full.  So, this may be a ‘mini-run’ on the market, a kind of half week holiday.  Keep an eye though as frost starts to enter the equation in Fairbanks, as the local market is set by local supply and demand! —

 

Nuclear in the EU

The first nuclear powerplant in decades recently was set up here in the US for energy production.  Japan has reducing its nuclear operations to account for no output since its disaster a few years ago…..  What is the attitude in Europe, however, is even a larger question.  Italy doesn’t have plans for  continuing nuclear (due to public sentiment), Belgium is finding other energy options, France is looking elsewhere,  and Germany is doing away with its nuclear plants within half a decade or so.

Yet when looking world-wide, there are over 5 dozen nuclear power plants in construction with 10 times that in the planning process.  China, which has a quarter of the number of existing plants compared to the U.S. is looking at putting in about a 100 more!  India intends to put in about a quarter of that (with Russia and the U.S. tied for third in the planning department).

When looking at overall costs this is not very competitive with other energy. Due to the overhead it certainly is the most expensive overall when looking at raw materials, infrastructure and maintenance.  Yet it is also carbon neutral.  Something to think about when we look at energy options.

 

 

 

 

What about wood….

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Wondering what the demand might be for split wood, I spoke this weekend with most likely the single largest volume supplier of dried and split firewood (in the Tanana Valley).  I asked if with the lower fuel oil prices (at least 100% lower than a few years ago the demand for wood has been dropping.  A bit last year, yet the business will continue to cut wood and prep for the future (this includes drying cut cords with a open air heater system to get the wood down to 18% moisture).

For this year bucking up wood stove lengths and splitting will continue as there are 7K of cords waiting to be sectioned off from trees that are already felled and limbed.  They are stacked up in the North Pole area, and with a full demand of years past and full production that would be enough for three years of processing alone! Spruce and Birch vary as far as BTU value per pound on these logs, yet the overall measurement of wood is done in volume of feet (an 8’x8’x4′ section).

So, if you have the choice to buy all Spruce or all Birch by the cord (remember, volume of mass), then your gain on BTUs would come in if you get all Birch; yet from the bark, you will get more ash most likely. White Birch has 20.2 million BTUs per cord to White Spruce’s 15.9 million BTUs per cord.

As you think of your fuel source which you want to have ready by fall, remember that the BTUs are going to be most when the wood is dry- which will NOT happen with your currently cut wood until it sits split and covered from the weather for a good year or so.  In fact, if you cut now and use the wood immediately this fall you may only get half as many BTUs as heat compared to wood cured for a good year.  Keep splitting, and keep drying!

When are you going to fill that tank???

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Do you heat your place with heating oil- #1 or #2?  There have been horror stories in the last half decade of residents in Fairbanks-especially around 2009, 2010, 2011, etc.. .. paying over $5,000 for oil heating during one calendar year. When do you fill your tank- whenever auto-delivery comes by?  At the end of each winter? When you dip your tank and only have a couple inches left?

I’m gong to throw out a couple of (possibly odd) considerations from a pocket book point of view if you are yet to make that decision.  For those having above ground fuel oil tanks and who live in the urban/rural interface, you may consider filling up after August when fire season is pretty much done yet frost hasn’t (typically) hit yet. We certainly have had summers where in June and July wildfires have come close to or consumed homes, and having your tank go through a burn- depending how intense it is and the kind of wildfire- may wipe out close to a thousand dollars worth of fuel.

If you have an underground storage tank and are looking at this July mimicking last wet July/August, you may decide to fill the tank (at least somewhat) now so that if the soil becomes over saturated the weight of the fuel alone will possibly keep your tank from being pushed to the surface (as many were last year). This may save your fuel lines from rupturing due to tank ‘floating’, or movement.

Or, watch the price trends to take a  proactive market driven stance. When you see prices go down and they seem to stabilize, you may want to fill.  Likewise, if you see a concentrated conflict arising around shipping bottlenecks the Suez Canal, you may consider filling up to avoid price spikes following some inflamed conflict which involves shipping of crude volume worldwide.

For what it’s worth, a recent  commentary in Bloomberg Financial (http://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-06-28/why-oil-is-still-headed-as-low-as-10-a-barrel)  looked at the glut of oil supplies on the market, full refineries, ineffective OPEC members, and fracking behavior to come out the prediction lately that oil will level out at around $10/barrel.  When predicting prices paid by consumers, talking a raw input like crude and a refined end product like #1 or #2 fuel oil is somewhat like talking apples to oranges- but you better believe the pump price for heating oil will drop hard if such a dive takes place!

 

 

U.S. Department of Agriculture invests in Alaska- energy?

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Recently there was an article in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer rolling out information on Alaska awardees of energy funds. This isn’t the first time that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded Alaska, a non-farming state, monies; since 2009 USDA has granted a couple billion to just over 225 villages and towns in the state.  Last week the article noted that the USDA’s Rural Development (State) announced nine grants of upwards to $16 million dollars that will go into helping Alaskan communities that pay over 275% the national average of household heating costs. Most American communities pay around a dime per kilowatt hour for electricity, whereas Alaska and Connecticut pay about double that- only to be surpassed by Hawaii (which has an average of 27 cents a kilowatt).

 

The focus is at the community scale (rather than assisting individuals with wind turbines or solar panels, for instance).  The following were winners this year:

  • Alaska Power & Telephone Company,
  • Alaska Village Electric Co-Op,
  • City of Grayling,
  • City of Pilot Point,
  • Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium,
  • NANA Regional Corp.,
  • New Koliganek Village Council,
  • Asa’carsarmiut Tribe,
  • Naterkaq Light Plant.

 

The improvements aren’t automatic. Just getting the right studies done can take months.  Yet it is worth the wait as with a dwindling state budget the USDA can fill in the gaps fiscally. The main state funding mechanism in the past has been the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund which is a revolving project bank of efforts initiated toward better energy efficiency.  It is almost a decade old and has allowed about a quarter of a million state dollars to be accompanied with almost as many federal and state dollars. It has been noted by the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) that this has been a very important program to be more efficient with the kilowatts produced and BTU’s burned!

 

Oil blues

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In Forbes about a week ago,  an op ed piece was run pointing out our current situation as a a state:
“Alaska stands at an economic crossroad. The state faces a multi-billion dollar deficit, historically low oil prices, and declining energy production; yet energy development is essential to its economy”.  With that as a setting, federal impacts are lined out,  the editorial writes out a scenario where pending federal departmental decisions on ANWR and ocean drilling  could  directly effect Alaska’s financial future”.

Highlighted is the 5 year Oil and Gas Leasing proposal  which highlights plans which could lead to oil lease sales being cancelled.  The  proposal manages what can and can’t be developed on the Continental shelf, where there are vast methane hydrates deposits (put out by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management office.

With a third of Alaskan jobs tied to oil/gas, this could have a large impact.  In the news a couple days ago was the announcement of two major firms shutting down operations at the moment.  What happens up on the slope effects the road system as the workers who fly up have homes and spend money in the urban areas.  We’ll have to see what the rest of 2016 brings as far as crude prices, yet these changes we are seeing may be structural, and most likely will not just ‘bounce back’ when oil gets back up to over $100/barrel or with a newly elected president.

 

Air source heat pumps- in Northern Alaska?

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Many people in SE Alaska are familiar with air source heat pumps which take advantage of the low electrical costs that come through local utilities through hydro power.  Similar to a reverse refrigeration unit, the electrical appliance pulls heat from outside air into the building (with the help of condensers, pumps and a fluid that easily vaporizes and then comes back to liquid form).  There are some units that were installed in Juneau back in the 60’s- half a century ago- which are yet running!

The two factors that have dictated whether a unit will be feasible are 1)cost of local electricity and 2)the coefficient of performance, which effected greatly by the temperature of the outside air.  Generally pumps have not been used as the primary source for a home when temperatures are below 20 degrees.  Yet there have been improvements on technology and increases in other staple fuels the last decade which have driven ‘cold weather’ residents to try the pumps (mainly heating oil in Alaska and propane in the Midwest states).  The Cold Climate Housing Research Center has been testing units and may have solutions for locations as cool as -20 degrees, which could serve the Interior and Northwest portion of the state- at least as supplementary heat with a oil stove coming on when the temperatures drop below.

One  manufacturer has started developing a heat pump funded by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy which would possibly  be able to achieve 100 percent of the its rated capacity below -10 degrees F.  Of course, the mitigating factor when looking at these now units will still be the cost of local electricity (often produced locally from flow/barged in fuel oil). Would this technology be a option for you?

 

Looking at Combined Heat and Power- in the city!

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First of all, I’m back in the saddle after several weeks of village travel/vacation.   So the blog is on. This weekend I was able to touch base with one of the more lucrative independent power producers in Alaska, and he mentioned that people in other parts of the nation/world are perking up to putting in microgrids – where there may already be cooperative utility services.  One instance he mentioned was a project where his company is putting in a large Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system for a major hospital near downtown  Anchorage.

There is a desire for security to have such ‘redundancy’ of supply of energy resources in part due to concerns over the vulnerability of the lower 48 grid system.  I’ve mentioned that investigative reporter Ted Koppel’s latest book Lights Out  has been raising awareness.  One newsletter yesterday put such concerns this way:

“ISIS attacks in Brussels, Paris and California may be just the beginning of an unprecedented plot to bring America to its knees by targeting our nation’s scandalously vulnerable electric grid, warn officials at the Pentagon and FBI. Why? Because terrorist groups like ISIS realize they can’t beat us with brute military force on the conventional battlefield. We’re way too strong for that. But when the electric grid fails, it will be like watching America have a heart attack right before your eyes. It’s like when the heart stops pumping… everything shuts down and the patient flat lines. Our great country would be crippled in a matter of minutes, without our enemies having to fire a single bullet.”

Now, the newsletter was also selling solar powered generators, so this may not be the most unbiased assessment, yet micro and islanded grids (enclaves inside utility districts) are becoming more popular.  Sometimes these CHP units serve small pods of residential buildings, or a ‘district’ per se. Yet CHP can also assist single commercial or industrial sites/buildings.  We may see more of these in the future, and stay tuned for more such projects applying for grant and state monies!

 

 

Ride sharing for everyone coming out of Brussels

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In light of our current Don’t Be Fuelish work, I wanted to mention another transportation effort to reduce vehicle fuel consumption.  The inventor of Uber taxi system, Travis Kalanick,  has been calling on  European Commission regulators to talk about solving urban  traffic and parking problems.  He’s been urging common residents to a phone app which leads to a proto-type cab service for  those who are in need of a ride. Kalanick has stated that “We’re making our case but also learning what it’s going to take to bring our kind of innovation to many cities here in Europe”.

Uber style of driving is serving many in  San Francisco and even a dozen and a half cities in China currently.  People  driving into work could conceivably  pick somebody up for a bit more gas money  while adding to less congestion, being less polluted and not having to spend a tax dollar to do it!

It has been popular enough to be valued at $62.5 billion dollars.  It isn’t so easy everywhere though….steep regulatory hurdles exist in Europe. Uber  has argued the service isn’t illegal and some of its proponents are adapting  it to the chauffeured transportation sector (larger than the taxi transportation services combined).  Some cities like Anchorage are passing municipal rules to keep Uber from operating (for a variety of reasons).  Yet if you travel to another large city, download the app and try it out to get your own impression!

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