Agricultural Energy


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Since petrol became available in mass, affordable quantities farms have obviously benefited from more efficient planting and harvesting equipment as well as farm house and milking parlor electrification,  In the Midwest you can drive down township roads and in some places see vestiges of early innovations such as dormant steam powered threshers or windmills that charged 36 volt electrical systems.   Yet aside from being considerable users of energy farms also have increasingly been generators of energy (or feedstock for heat/electrical production).

Some of the production comes from farm based  biodiesel (which has been created and used at the UAF experimental farm in Palmer) as well as biomass fuel crops- when you consider that wood is considered by federal agencies an ag crop. One of the more popular type of agricultural produced feedstocks in the past couple decades (which helped to generate the onging ‘food for fuel’ debate) was corn grown toward producing ethanol.  In Interior Alaska it has been the primary grain crop barley that has been utilized- but not as a liquid fuel but rather solid substitute sold for pellet stoves creating space heat.

There are several grants out that encourage looking at farm-based energy generation.  Encouragement of research coupled with outreach education are needed.  Some efforts, such as the Western States Agricultural Research Education  E3A program look at how simple non-petrol energy production could help a farm to operate better, no matter what the crop output is or may be used for.  The ground source heat pump section of this program was written by a collaboration of UAF Extension with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center and Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Farm use of solar to power irrigation pumps and create domestic hot water, wind generation, and efficiency measures for farm buildings are some of the topics covered.

It is important for universities to not only do the research, but also to reduce the  gaps of knowledge  in the science and how to create the energy production with an understanding of  farm type operations.  One of the areas that the School of Natural Resources and Engineering school at UAF have taken up in pursuance of grants is agricultural land management toward producing (possibly) usable heat and and a soil amendment or filter product from biochar.  There will be more on this in the next couple months that I’ll explain!

Below $50 a barrel…



The last couple days oil commodities have rapidly dropped the last couple days and for the first time in quite a while oil is now under $50 a barrel.  Southwestern Energy and Mobil have lost quite a bit in the bull market and oil is certainly not the driver it was a decade ago.  OPEC disfunction and Russian flooding of the market- along with thick inventories- are plummeting prices.

Such trends downwards will tend to raise eyebrows by those who have invested strongly the last year or so in renewable energy capital; oil is all the more appealing in the short run for working projects.  What is interesting is that development of long term batteries continues.

Locally, have you filled your fuel tank lately for your furnace, boiler or direct vent heater (Toyo, Monitor, etc..)?  With -35 weather this week in the mornings as we start to pick up a good amount of solar exposure we yet have a healthy amount of solar gain going.  If you do order fuel, try to put just enough to get you into June (depending what you have hooked up to use oil).  That way, when the dry June comes through and we end up with a good amount of lightening strikes, you can reduce problems for any wildfires that come through your area in the summer.

Melting soils and foundations


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Whether from cow methane, oil burning factories or some of both, there is no doubt that our annual mean temperatures over the last century have been on an upward trend in the Interior. While effects of warmer seasonal weather are hitting the higher latitudes with more fervor, there is the advantage of discontinuous permafrost moving out of arable and accessible building sites.  The upshot is that in the Interior of the state building sites may well open up for full foundations (cement slab or footers in crawlspaces) where in the past pad and post was the only sure way to go.

Given the scattered Uranium throughout the state, it will be all the more important for contractors to utilize radon resistant construction so that from the git-go there is not only protective vapor barrier secured on the ground but also semi permeable membrane material such as Bituthene adhered to any pony walls before back filling soils.   This is because radon is a pervasive  gas (although wimpy) and with frozen soils melting and ice lenses migrating there will be new open paths for gasses to reach the foundation of many homes. Take a look at this  YouTube channel and watch the 4 minute film (while sharing the more detailed 12 minute piece for your contractor who’ll build for you): &

We don’t know currently how the sink holes and melting permafrost will effect radon distribution by and large in areas as there has not been an operating home built yet in this marginal land which allows for the variations of concentrations from home ventilation systems.  (The other thing we do not know is how garden  or crop plants will react to the non-decayed organic method which will release methane as lands are ‘opened up’).  Remember, no matter where you are currently living, the only way  you’ll know if you have a radioactive radon problem, is to test- which for $25 or so is not such an weighty matter when considering the cost of detection, treatment and care of lung cancer!



Roof safety with heavy snow


We have gotten an exceptionally wet and large amount of snow the last couple days and there has been talk of what a roof will take. Here are some precautions on those who have mobile homes:

  • keep in mind that there is more stress on the flat roof than a peaked roof (and the timbers are not as stout as on a peaked roof)
  • on  any other flat roof building you want to find out what the covering is made of before applying a metal edged snow scoop, chipper, or shovel
  • .you may need a tie on belt if you need to get on top and shovel a time or two this year to relieve the pressure in the middle of the roof (where a snow rake won’t reach)

Snow load is measured in pounds per square inch). Inspectors in Fairbanks and Anchorage have a code for new builds and you will want to see what the code is for where you live.  In the city of Fairbanks, code calls for roofs to be built that can withstand 50 pounds per square foot of weight.   To measure this, you can make a plywood box that is 12″ x12″ and 3 foot or so high.  You can then “cookie cut” a section down to the roof and then slide a flat plate underneath.  Transfer the box to a bathroom scale, record the weight (and then subtract the weight of the box).  You can also go to, put your zip code in and then click on special hazard report and it should give you the pounds per foot out at the Fairbanks Airport.  Keep an eye on your snow and roof!

Radon’s reach


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Earlier this week there was a presentation at UAF on Radon.  It was about testing your home to some degree, yet had a new emphasis that has not been highlighted so strongly before- the lung health and geology side of things.  The director of the local Alaska chapter of the American Lung Association (AALA) was there and had detailed slides on lungs; Maegan went in depth of how a healthy lung should look, what parts are compromised by the decaying radioactive gas of radon, and made mention on how to keep the lung tissues healthy throughout life (and yes, exercise was listed as one of those maintenance activities).  The images on the Powerpoint slides were dynamic and colorful. We will look forward to the community event which AALA is hosting April 17.

In addition, Jen Athley shared on the ‘lay of the land’, so to speak concerning naturally occurring radioactive substances.  She also had a very vibrant overhead color map of Alaska which differentiated various deposits of landform/rock.  She went into detail to describe how radon interacts with various minerals as well as the distribution of those minerals.  And of course she spoke to- in detail- what the potential dangers are with hard rock schist in disseminating radon.

Cooperative Extension will hope to continue sharing about radon as we try to renew our rounds of healthy homes classes year round- which have a strong indoor air quality component.  Keep an eye out for healthy homes or straight radon classes this spring and summer.

The cost of warming up


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This week there were various sessions at Anchorage’s  Alaska Forum on the Environment on climate change effects.  One advantage mentioned during a food security session is that there very well be more arable land available to grow food on as permafrost melts.  Albeit there will need to be examinations as to how the organic matter once frozen effects new plants.

An article in the Alaska Dispatch mentioned that there will be a downside to Alaskans though.  It will cost more as the landscape changes to keep up with engineering concerns.  It notes that a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has aggregated what it thinks the costs will be to the public sector for repaired and new infrastructure from:

  • flooding  and precipitation
  • permafrost changes
  • freeze-thaw cycles and coastal erosion

They estimate the total cost of repairing public roads, pipelines, buildings, airports and rail lines at $5.5 billion by the end of the century. UAA has a report estimating the costs at $5.6-$7.6 billion.  (This might be the time to become an engineer!)

There will benefits and costs to Alaska as patterns change.  The studies didn’t look at the Pipeline, harbors and other private infrastructure.  The question is always who will pony up for the bill?

EU weighs in on Arctic energy concerns


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This past week a committee of the EU discussed and voted on the arctic with its opening up in the near future.  One issue was petrol pollution; it centered around banning heavy marine oils that if there were a spill would be particularly difficult to clean- especially given the frigid waters.  Also of a concern was the advancement and re-opening of Russian military  bases in the north.  In fact, a number of mothballed bases from the cold war era are being revamped- similar to our Adak, Galena, and other cold war bases.

The other concern was Russian exploration.  The Russians have 40+icebreakers, of which three are nuclear powered – and there are three more that are on the building docks.  With the northern route open now seasonally (along the Russian northern coast to Scandinavia) the northwest route of Canada would still be left alone for about another dozen years before shipping and exploration becomes a viable travel path.

More debates are bound to come in the nuclear realm as EU nations de-invest in nuclear power and the Russians continue with remote applications such as nuclear oil drilling platforms.

Clean energy in the future…


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With a new administration and congress in charge, what will the focus be on ‘energy’?  Certainly incentives and priority on heat and electrical generation will not be as centered around carbon.  At this point  has sounded like the focus from the top of environmental and energy departments (federal) will be going the opposite direction of Cap and Trade and more so focused on the utility and cost feasibility of fuel sources.

If so, are ‘clean energy’ energy sources going to be relevant at all? It will probably depend fuel by fuel on extraction/generation costs, infrastructure requirements for transportation and usability at end use locations- whether it be at power generation plants (utilities) or home heating appliances.  Will particle emissions/output be a concern from a local pollution point of view (with carbon escapement itself not being the focus)? Will non-combustible energy sources such as solar or wind have a competitive place among combustible fuels? These are going to be questions that clues will be unfolding from the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also keeping an eye on the various activities in the congressional energy committees will help also to spot what is viable and what isn’t. And for Alaska, where we have somewhat of a secluded energy market, we may not be effected by federal adjustments as much as the grid tied lower 48 states!



Roof frost


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This past week I’ve been going back and forth with an Anchorage homeowner who did the right thing- insulated his 1960’s home- and now has an unexpected situation.  It turns out that up in the attic he is getting a build up of frost on the inside (downside) portion of his roof after beefing up the amount of fiberglass insulation.  With a vapor barrier under the original fiberglass bats, somehow moisture is frosting up in the attic space.

Usually this would be a ventilation problem, incurred from a restriction of circulation through the attic.  It has louvered vents on both ends, so it is a ‘cold roof’ (that is, outside air is free to come and go in the attic area).  One has some frost yet is accessible while the other looks fully frosted up.  That may restrict a flow of cold air coming through.  I asked about moisture possibly entering from the top of the roof- but no, no new leaks known of.

As it is a shallow roof, at first it seemed like possibly the new fiberglass could be blocking air intakes under the eaves but he even increased the open area with new cuts.  He also had ‘baffles’ inserted, so that the pieces of tightly fit cardboard would allow space between the underside of the roof for air to come up from under the eaves as a direct avenue.  The other possibility is a new moisture source from possibly a broken PVC stack pipe that may be entering condensation from escaping air out the top of the roof (such as from a sewer stack).

At this point, acknowledging that the weather is much colder than usual and that Anchorage tends to have moist ambient air, I am not sure what could be causing the frosting as it is not uniformed throughout the upper part of the attic- only on the underside of the baffles between the gables and roof trusses!  I am conferring with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, yet have any of you readers had similar circumstances? Please reply if so!

Remote is remote…….


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Currently being at an international conference, I was able to talk to someone who is in higher education about the situations run into per ‘frontier’ conditions.  She spoke of living in a smaller city in Australia, and similar to those who live on the Yukon River during breakup here in the ‘Last Frontier’, she described the annual resignation to the 2 weeks of seasonal rains that force people to stop traveling until the flooding has stopped.

This is not far from the reality of what those in villages up river experience when around late March they box things up in their log homes that are built on the ground (typically the Yukon Flats area) and put them all up on ~2.5 foot wide shelves which are stabilized about 2 foot from the ceiling. When the river is clear of ice jams and the danger of major flooding is over the boxes come down, are unpacked, residents can be more mobile once again.  The Australian educator I spoke with mentioned that when their two weeks of immobilizing rains end, then  travel resume.

Of course it’s the times when rains or river ice suddenly bust open (especially while people are sleeping or when they do not expect the annual events) which leads to disaster recovery needs- and possibly evacuation with an emergency kit in some cases.  The  miles and miles of ice dammed up in Galena in May 2013 wasn’t unheard of, but it was the sudden shifting and release that caused people to evacuate, have their power plant fill up with several feet of water and made for very hasty evacuations.

In rural Australia or Alaska,  remote  communities can at times be ‘stopped’, isolated  from river or air travel and faced with problems well beyond inconveniences of cancelled school for kids.  The key is to have prepared.  That would be getting the physical structure prepped as well as can be expected ahead of the disaster so that it stays intact and allows for a quick clean up and relocation of major items  (how water heaters, drawers china hutches/cabinets, etc…} once the  earthquake, tsunami, or seasonal  flooding runs out of the area. (And of course, the other piece of preparation is having an emergency evacuation kit stocked and ready to go at all times with seven days of supplies for each member and pet in the home).