SEWARD -- It's hard to miss the picturesque beauty of Resurrection Bay when you're in this seaside town. Tucked between steep mountains, the bay serves as a gateway to Prince William Sound -- known for its majestic beauty, bountiful fishing and recreation paradise for residents of Southcentral Alaska.
But Andy Baker sees a little more than that. To him, the bay is more than a playground -- it's an 11-mile long, 1,000-foot deep solar panel capable of providing affordable heat to the small coastal community.
Over the last three years, Baker, an Anchorage-based renewable-energy consultant for his own company, YourCleanEnergy, has worked with the Alaska SeaLife Center and a handful of small businesses and homeowners to install heat pumps that convert energy from cold water into building heat.
That's important to the community of Seward, population 3,000. The town is one of many Alaska communities facing high energy costs. Despite being relatively close to the affordable heat source of natural gas (the resource is abundant in Cook Inlet, just 100 miles to the north), Seward heats buildings with expensive heating fuel. The fuel's cost fluctuates with the price of gas and in recent years has skyrocketed, leaving the community at the head of Resurrection Bay as one of Alaska's "energy refugees."
In the winter, with fewer tourists roaming the streets, many downtown businesses stay shuttered, partly because of the high cost of heating the buildings.
The applications of the heat pump are admittedly specific. Communities that could utilize them need an abundant water source or an ice-free bay -- as well as relatively cheap electricity in order for things to pencil out. But Seward, with the SeaLife Center's easy access to the bay, has everything it needs to be a renewable energy success story.
"Not many places have that infrastructure, not many places have that kind of capacity," Baker said. "... The SeaLife center is an asset."
Simple principles, big savings
Baker explained how the technology works last week. While the specifics are complicated, the principle is simple.
Water in the ice-free bay, which is deep and long, is heated all year by the sun. The water sits at 37 degrees in April after enduring a winter of cold temperatures. But during summer, the water acts as a solar conductor, slowly accumulating degrees. By November, once glacial and river runoff has slowed, the water is at its warmest, about 50 degrees. It's so warm that during winter, it's not uncommon to see the bay steaming, said Alaska SeaLife Center President and CEO Tara Riemer Jones.
But stick your hand in that water, and you might not feel the same way. While it may steam, 50 degrees is still no Caribbean beach. Fall in and hypothermia would set in quickly.
But that "warm" water is perfect for the heat pumps. At the SeaLife Center, a pump reaches 1,000 feet into the bay and sucks up thousands of gallons of water a day. Some goes to the exhibits of the marine creatures that populate the center -- including harbor seals, Steller sea lions and a northern fur seal pup and numerous sea birds like puffins and eiders -- but hundreds of other gallons flow through the heat pump.
Essentially, the pump acts like a refrigerator. The water is run past a coolant, in this case, glycol, which boils. That liquid evaporates, is collected and condensed. That compression creates heat. The heat is collected and pumped back into the building.
At the SeaLife Center, that means heating for 70 percent of the 120,000-square-foot building. With so many different needs in the building, pumps have to be able to heat everything from offices to Steller sea lion exhibits. With animals going in and out of the water, there are 12,000 feet of radiant heating tubes in the pavement that must stay ice-free for the safety of SeaLife Center employees and the animals.
Big savings for the Center
Riemer Jones said going with the heat pumps just made sense for the facility, which was looking to cut its energy costs.
"It was something that came as an obvious thing. We worked with Andy Baker and he was like, 'Hey, you have heat right there,'" she said about the building's access to the bay.
Of an $8.9 million operating budget, Riemer Jones said last fiscal year the center paid $49,000 for heating oil. Before the heat pumps, the facility was using about 132,000 gallons of heating oil a year -- to the tune of roughly half a million dollars in 2008.
In 2008, before the heat pumps, the facility had a utility bill of $1.2 million. Last fiscal year it was just under $600,000.
Switching to heat pumps has meant a net savings of $18,000 a month for the facility. And the system is only getting more efficient, according to Darryl Schaefermeyer, facilities director for the SeaLife Center.
Last November, with the facility's two heat pumps operating at their maximum, the facility turned off its oil burners -- big, clunky pale-blue furnaces installed in 2004.
While the center would like to go to using 100 percent heat-pump heat, it is somewhat limited based on the design of the building. A baseboard heating system requires a higher degree of heat to run. Baker said the SeaLife Center has applied for an emerging technology grant that would cover the cost of installing heat pumps capable of heating the baseboards and reducing its reliance on an electric domestic water heater.
Plus, after the water is spent, it's chilled and sent back into the bay. With oceans only experiencing warming due to climate change, sending it back to the sources doesn't sound like a bad idea to the center. "A little bit of chilling sounds good to me," Riemer Jones said.
Heat pumps aren't limited to Seward. Baker said there are applications in Southeast Alaska, particularly in Juneau, with Sitka also looking to install pumps.
Baker said heat pumps have been used in Norway to create "heating districts." He suggests that maybe one day downtown Seward could have the same sort of system fired by the pumps. That could revitalize businesses that are shuttered during the winter and possibly increase tax revenue for the city.
Seward City Manager Jim Hunt acknowledged the idea of a heating district is still in its infancy, but the thought is "really exciting." With the proven success of the SeaLife Center, the challenge will be not in building or proving the technology, but going through the administrative steps to create a utility.
Hunt noted that more businesses in Seward have started staying open through the winter -- including a handful of restaurants and even Icicle Seafoods, the local processing plant. Those, along with increased tax revenues show that Seward is growing. With getting natural gas just an idea "in the distant future," technology like the heat pumps seems to be a good way for the city to go.
"The little face of Seward is starting to grow up," Hunt said.
Who knows, he added, maybe one day they won't just have restaurants staying open year-round. The city might even have heated sidewalks, too.