President Barack Obama touched down in Seward on Tuesday to promote increased awareness of climate change and renewable energy. But one thing he might not have known is that Seward's already a step ahead of him.
On Monday night -- just hours before President Obama touched down in the Kenai Peninsula city of 3,000 -- the seven-member Seward City Council voted unanimously to move forward on a project to create the first part of a renewable energy "heating district" in the city's downtown core using heat from Resurrection Bay tides.
The proposed project would heat four city buildings: the library, city hall, a city annex and the fire department.
Assistant city manager Ron Long said getting those buildings off heating oil -- the main source of heat in town -- is expected to save the city up to $76,000 a year.
"It has just the right set of circumstances to make this a really good project in our area," Long said Tuesday.
In the resolution approved Monday, the council agreed to apply for an $850,000 grant from the Alaska Energy Authority Renewable Energy Fund. It also allocated $85,000 in city general funds to make the grant competitive.
Ideas of a broader heating district in the city have been building for years, thanks to the success of a similar system at the Alaska SeaLife Center. That system, which absorbs heat from relatively cool Resurrection Bay water and converts it into heat, has cut the aquarium's utility bill in half, saving it thousands of dollars in heating fuel costs since heat pumps began fully heating the building in 2012.
The proposed downtown system would use a series of vertical "heat loops" drilled into the ground that would absorb energy from sea water moving through the gravel 200 to 300 feet below the city's waterfront.
Andy Baker, an Anchorage-based renewable energy consultant with his own company, YourCleanEnergy, said that while the heat pump technology is similar to the Alaska SeaLife Center, there are crucial differences. The SeaLife Center pulls water directly from a pump in the bay. Some water is diverted to exhibits while the rest goes to the heat pump.
But pulling directly from the bay has its drawbacks. He said the main line can get clogged with debris like small fish and can be at risk of being pulled up by boat anchors. to fishing anchors. The downtown heating system would bypass that by using tidewater filtered through gravel.
Baker said, if built, it would be the farthest-north ocean source district heat pump system in the United States. He said similar heat pump systems have been successfully utilized in Europe.
Baker said the city will know if they've been approved for the grant by early 2016. If approved, the system could be completed by December of next year.
He said with time it could evolve into a series of smaller heating districts, expanding to other parts of the city. Baker said the technology could also be applied to other Alaska coastal communities.
"This process in Seward has been very steady, slow-moving, but steady, and always going forward," Baker said Tuesday. "And that's a good model for a lot of these towns."
Long commended the city council, which he said asked tough questions during the meeting Monday night but were still supportive of the project.
And with the president in town, Long joked that he wished he could take a minute to tell the president about what the city was doing.
"I really wish I had an opportunity to say, 'Look what our city council did last night!'" he said. "But I can see how it's not possible that I would be able to have lunch with the president."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the proposed system would be the farthest-north ground source heat pump in the U.S.; it will actually be the farthest-north ocean source district heat pump. The story also erroneously stated that anchors can clog the intake line, but anchors can actually sometimes pull up the line. The system could be completed by December of next year, not the fall.