Monday, August 21, 2006

Geothermal Energy A Reality At Chena Hot Springs, Alaska

While there's been plenty of hot air generated during this Alaska primary election season, and more to be generated until the general election in November, after the election we lose the hot air when we need it the most. However, the Chena Hot Springs Chena Chiller Geothermal Plant will solve that problem for the locals there. Original story from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The steamy thermal springs at Chena Hot Springs Resort have always been a place to relax and enjoy the hot pools of water that bubble up from the earth, but starting years ago, resort owner Bernie Karl had bigger ideas for the water.

Now, the hot springs that visitors and locals have enjoyed as a leisure destination for decades powers nearly all aspects of the resort, thanks the Chena Hot Springs Chena Chiller Geothermal Power Plant, officially unveiled Sunday at the resort’s first Renewable Energy Fair. “When you're making energy off 165-degree hot water, things are great,” said a giddy Karl.

Karl, along with the resort’s vice president of new development, Gwen Holdmann, and United Technologies Corporation developed the geothermal power plant for the resort, the first in the state and the first in the world to use water as cool as 165 degrees. The project had the financial backing and support of several state, national and governmental agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy. Gov. Frank Murkowski and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens were on hand at Chena Hot Springs on Sunday August 20th to help Karl cut the ribbon to the plant.

As the project developed over the last three years, the resort, which lies off the electric grid, slowly began weaning itself from diesel generators. Now, most power and heat for the resort comes from the geothermal plant, as does the energy that keeps the resort’s ice museum cool during the summer and the resort’s new greenhouses warm in the winter. The plant is the cornerstone of Karl’s vision to make the resort a self-sustaining community in terms of energy, food and fuel.

The 165-degree water could not generate enough steam on its own to create power. Instead, the plant works by using the heat from the geothermal water to vaporize a fluid with a lower boiling point. That vapor builds up pressure that drives a turbine and generates power.

The greenhouses are the most visual example of the geothermal power. During tours of the facilities Sunday, even the greenest thumbs were awed with the variety of tomatoes, lettuce, herbs and berries cultivated for use in the resort’s restaurant.

Greenhouse manager Rusty Foreaker described how the warm water was used to maintain a constant temperature and provide energy for the heated grow lights. Foreaker said the resort plans to be able to maintain a warm growing temperature and 36,000 watts of light to grow produce through the winter.

When it’s dark and you light this place up, the mother ship has landed,” Foreaker said. The green house sustains about 400 tomato plants, and about 1,600 pounds of tomatoes have been harvested since they were seeded in April, he said. “We have a soup of the day every day,” Foreaker said. “Tomato basil, with tomatoes from our greenhouse and basil from our herb garden.”

Even at a cost of $26,000 for the structure, which doesn’t include the concrete radiant flooring, Foreaker said hte project should pay for itself within a year with the amount the resort is able to save using geothermal energy for heating, lighting and food profits.

A variety of people visited the energy fair, including students and conservationists. But families and homeowners looking for small ways to make a difference in their home energy costs also enjoyed the tours, vendors and food, including the Macomber family. While on the greenhouse tour, Jaques Macomber and 3-year-old Khove were admiring the thimbled-sized raspberries while Kendell and 5-year-old Ember were checking out the rows of lettuce and vines of grape tomatoes, sagging with fruit. “We’re all for renewable energy,” Kendell Macomber said. She said the family has a few solar panels for home use and they are interested in the vendors specializing in wind power, something the family has considered using at their Chena Ridge home eventually.

Solar energy, wind power and hydropower were all topics present at the vendor fair, along with workshops throughout the day on renewable energy. It was all in balance with the grander schemes Karl has for geothermal power, which he would eventually like to see become the norm. The idea itself is not new, but despite the fact that Alaska has the most geothermal resources of any state, it has not been seriously explored here. “Isn’t it sad (the United States) is five percent of the world’s population and we consume 25 to 30 percent of the world’s energy?” he said in a speech during the fair. “I believe with your help, you will help us do the most to generate power the 21st century. It will come out of Chena Hot Springs, out of Fairbanks, Alaska.”

A second turbine is arriving at the resort this fall. But Karls’ hangar-size plant has room for dozens more turbines, something Karl said he envisions. He said he believes if he can generate as much as 20 megawatts, he could get Golden Valley Electric Association to commit to building transmission lines between Fairbanks and Chena to tap into the cheap energy source for areas of the Interior. He also envisions geothermal energy to be the wave of the future in rural Alaska communities and throughout the country.

Murkowski and Stevens said they think Alaska could become a big player in alternative energy sources, and use it to the state’s advantage, as an example of balancing renewable and other resources. “I think this is a very staggering opportunity to demonstrate what an energy source Alaska is,” Stevens said. “We’re looking at the whole state to see where the next place is.”

But Stevens said his primary concern is how to fund renewable energy projects in the state, because they offer little return profit. That’s why Alaska’s more well-known resources should not be downplayed when touting renewable sources. Specifically, he said, he’d like to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration and commit 10 percent of that revenue to alternative energy sources. “Then we wouldn’t have to go to Congress every year and ask for money,” he said.

Analysis: This could be a long-term solution to high energy costs in Bush Alaska. Lowering energy costs in the Bush could reduce the amount of public subsidies directed towards the Bush, or allow a higher percentage of existing subsidies to be redirected towards other functions, like public safety. Perhaps an extra Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) at Hooper Bay could have discovered those kids lighting matches under the old school and prevented the recent disastrous fire.

Senator Ted Stevens identified the crux of the problem in popularizing alternative energy sources - they offer little return profit initially. And in a predatory corporate environment addicted to quick windfall profits, windfall executive compensation, and greedy shareholders, that's almost the kiss of death.

There is NOT and can be NO single alternative to fossil fuels, nor can there be a wholesale replacement for fossil fuels. Instead, we need a national strategy to develop a network of complementary alternatives to incrementally reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Geothermal energy in Chena Hot Springs seems promising. On Fire Island, just west of Anchorage, they've proposed a wind farm. The Aleutians, with their frequent wind storms, could become a vast wind farm supplying a sizable chunk of Alaska's needs. Of course, this would require a Federal government that is willing to spend money on America first, last, and foremost, and not spend money on Israel, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and every other political quagmire where people stubbornly and selfishly refuse to get along with each other. Did you know that, according to dissident journalist Christopher Bollyn, that the United States has spent an estimated $3 trillion on the 58-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East? Imagine what we could have done with just $1 trillion of that amount here at home.

Learn more about geothermal energy at the Geothermal Technologies Program website, wind energy at the American Wind Energy Association website, and solar energy at the Solar Energy Technologies Program website.

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