Written by Shaina Kilcoyne, Renewable Energy Alaska Project
On a warm, bluebird day in April, Southeast Island School District and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership led a 25 person tour to Coffman Cove, Thorne Bay and Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island to see their biomass and greenhouse projects in person. Tour participants from Hoonah, Kake, Hydaburg, Klawock, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs, Ontario and the Yukon each had in hand a Biomass Heated Greenhouse Handbook. This comprehensive handbook outlines how to turn these inspiring greenhouses from dream to reality. It was unveiled a day prior at the Alaska Wood Energy Conference in Ketchikan and is a free resource available to schools and anybody who is interested in building a Biomass Heated Greenhouse locally. The USDA Forest Service and the Alaska Energy Authority commissioned the Handbook, in part to share successes and lessons learned from the Southeast Island School District and help streamline the process for future projects. Nobody wants to re-invent the wheel, and handbooks like these provide the tools so that interested local leaders don’t need to!
“We teach retention, other schools teach compliance” –Colter Barnes
Back on the tour on Prince of Wales Island, five to seven year old students confidently walked out to the chicken coop to do their morning chores – collecting and counting eggs, feeding chickens and ducks, refilling water. Two high schooler’s run outside to the biomass boiler shed to stoke the fire between classes. A middle school class weighs goldfish, calculates the amount of fish food to feed them (3% of their mass), and tests the water levels in the aquaponic greenhouse.
Of the 500 plus schools in Alaska, four on Prince of Wales Island are now displacing heating fuel and imported foods with local woody biomass and greenhouses. According to Principal Colter Barnes, the $200 earned from delivering a cord of wood can make a big difference for families in these high cost communities, and produces about the same amount of heat as $500 worth of diesel fuel. Students fund sports travel and even requested more duties stoking the boiler and hauling and cutting wood a couple of weeks ago to save up for prom.
These greenhouses are truly inspiring. They are creating jobs and economic development, generating clean, affordable, local energy, teaching nutrition and culinary arts, applied learning, and community engagement. This is a story of building healthy, culturally vibrant communities and a more resilient region and the newly published handbook will help take this fantastic island-wide project to the next level.
Reflections from Ian Johnson, Community Catalyst in Hoonah
The community of Hoonah is currently working to determine if a district biomass heat-loop and biomass-linked greenhouse are right for our community. We are hoping to save energy and cultivate more local produce here in rural Alaska.
Lucky for Hoonah, schools on Prince of Wales Island are already pioneering biomass-heated greenhouses. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is great because it helps connect ideas and successes from one community, and share them with change-makers across our region. The Biomass Greenhouse Tour arranged by Shaina Kilcoyne and Lia Heifetz of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, brought 5 community members from Hoonah and 21 other participants from Alaska and Canada to Prince of Wales to examine their biomass linked greenhouses. The experience was powerful.
We started in Coffman Cove with the gardeners of the future – the kindergarten class is tasked with feeding the chickens each morning and collecting eggs. It was delightful, heart-warming, and inspiring to see their bond with the chickens and the enjoyment of their work. From there we learned from the high schoolers and Principal, Colter Barnes how the local biomass sourcing provides money to the local economy ($175/ cord) while warming the greenhouse at a cost savings compared to diesel – a $175 cord of wood is equivalent to about $500 in diesel.
We then moved to the large greenhouse in Coffman cove and were given a tour by the middle-schoolers who run it’s aquaponics operation and harvesting. The excitement was truly electric as it became evident that the Coffman Cove model creates student involvement, provides to the local economy during the lean winter months, generates food security, and provides money to the school through produce sales. These were just SOME of the benefits of their incredible operation. We continued our learning by visiting the greenhouses at Thorne Bay and Kasaan to learn about how we can scale our greenhouses and about slightly different boiler systems. Ending the day at the the Whale House in Kasaan was just icing on the cake!
I can’t thank enough Shaina and Lia for putting together this incredible event. I know it will cause quite a stir in Hoonah and we begin to look at our greenhouse options here.
Are you a business or commercial building owner interested in saving money on your heating and electric bills? An energy audit will show you how energy is used in your facility and will recommend ways to reduce your use and save money.
Southeast Conference, Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) are offering 75% off commercial building audits through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. There are limited seats left, so don’t miss this opportunity to sign up.
Last year, businesses and public facilities in Hoonah, Haines and Prince of Wales Island participated, receiving 29 Level I energy audits and 5 Level II audits. The 34 audited buildings totaled over 230,000 ft2. In all, the recommended energy efficiency measures total $382,701. These lighting, heating, ventilation and other recommendations will yield an estimated annual savings of $173,782! This means that it will take only a little over two years for these savings to pay for themselves.
Join the movement to save money and save energy for Southeast Alaska! Interested Southeast businesses should contact Robert Venables (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Shaina Kilcoyne (email@example.com). Communities will need at least three businesses to get them on the Auditor’s schedule, so talk to your neighbors! With an audit, businesses will be eligible for USDA’s Rural Energy for America grant and loan Program for renewable energy and energy efficiency measures. Loan Guarantees are completed continuously throughout the year.
Living in rural Alaska can be difficult. Energy costs are among the highest in the nation and quality, locally grown produce is scarce. Pairing a greenhouse with a wood heating system can benefit communities by improving nutrition, lowering energy costs, and providing local employment opportunities. That is why the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Energy Authority have partnered to fund Alaska Biomass Heated Greenhouse Handbook. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership and the Southeast Island School District have been selected as sub-contractors to help write this handbook, which will be unveiled at the Wood Energy Conference April 11-12 in Ketchikan.
The overarching goal of this project is to create a guiding document that will help cultivate sustainable, self-sufficient, and resilient communities throughout Alaska. The online “e-handbook” will be a practical handbook to help interested communities plan, build, and manage a school biomass-heated greenhouse. It will inform readers on how to best select greenhouse technology, develop business and operations plans, and integrate biomass and greenhouse-related Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum into schools.
What’s so special about biomass heated greenhouses?
Schools are the epicenter of most rural Alaska communities. The Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island has illustrated its commitment to local communities by exploring wood boiler and greenhouse options. What started with a few raised garden beds and a heat recovery system in one school has since grown into an island-wide phenomena. Kasaan, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove have all replaced costly diesel generators with wood boiler systems and are using local wood to heat schools, greenhouses, and businesses. The students are served fresh salad at lunch, and the Thorne Bay School is now running managing and operating a local restaurant, the Thorne Bay Café. Read more about the Southeast Island School Districts biomass and greenhouse projects here: “Back to School: Swapping Eggrolls for Rainbow Chard.”
Locally sourced biomass fuels can provide sustainable forest management along with a renewable, reliable energy source. This reduces transportation costs for energy, fossil fuel use and woody biomass waste. Biomass heated greenhouses provide local jobs, keeping food and energy dollars inside a community. Finally, growing food provides security for communities in a state where vast distances and our cold climate can affect quality and dependability of shipments of outside goods.
According to the Alaska Energy Authority, ten Alaska schools out of 507 are heated with biomass systems, five of which have operational greenhouse projects. There is ample opportunity for growth; over the last decade, the Alaska Wood Energy Development Task Group with Renewable Energy Fund grants has worked to encourage the conversion to high efficiency biomass boilers. This guide will build from the existing momentum and recent successes of biomass greenhouses in Alaska Schools.
Written by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich for Edible Alaska Magazine
Across the country cafeteria trays aren’t often admired for their nutrition, freshness, or taste. In rural southeast Alaska, however, a dedicated school district and its greenhouse program are challenging that notion, while invigorating local economies, growing entrepreneurs, and gratifying taste buds.
Prince of Wales Island rests at the southernmost end of Alaska’s panhandle. The communities that make up this island are isolated, connected by seemingly endless miles of winding roads. The Southeast Island School District (SISD) is the major school district on Prince of Wales. It includes nine schools in unique communities from the small Haida village of Kasaan to old logging camps like Coffman Cove. All of these communities share some key challenges. Only one of them has a grocery store of considerable size, and the majority of the food is barged in. By the time these costly imported vegetables hit family plates, they are often wilted and unappetizing. Residents are in search of long-term economic solutions.
As in many small schools across the state, cafeteria lunches also lack crunch. “Small schools don’t have full time cooks and use mostly warming ovens to make eggrolls and burritos,” says Lauren Burch, the superintendent for Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island. “That’s not what we should be feeding our kids.”
Those heat-and-serve lunches are not only uninspiring, they are costly too. “In my school district I lose roughly $100,000 a year even having a food program at all, and that’s gotta come from somewhere,” Burch says. The state’s purse strings aren’t loosening any time soon. Alaskans are witnessing the slicing and dicing of many key programs, including the whittling away of school funding. “State funding right now is traumatizing,” he admits.
But Burch—along with teachers, students, administrators, and community members of Southeast Island School District—is stepping up to face these challenges with gusto. What started with a few raised garden beds and a heat recovery system in one school has since grown into an island-wide phenomena. Kasaan, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove have all replaced costly diesel generators with wood boiler systems and are using local wood to heat schools, greenhouses, and businesses. They are growing their own food, freshening up those lunch trays, and supporting the local economy as they revolutionize district thinking. This inspiring cohort is accomplishing all of this while giving the next generation of Alaska’s leaders a mouth-watering hands-on education.
So, how does it work? Let’s take a tour.
AQUAPONICS: FROM FISH TO FRESH VEGGIES
“Everything we do starts with those fish. All we have to do is feed them. We use their feces throughout the system as nutrients. We use the poop to grow the plants, in short speak,” explains Ieshia Searle. Ieshia is a senior at Thorne Bay High School and has been involved in the greenhouse since its’ inception.
Eager goldfish crowd the window of a big central tank as Ieshia sprinkles a bit of fish food from above. A pump moves nutrient rich water from this tank through colonies of bacteria that filter the solid waste and convert fish feces into a form of nitrogen the plants can use. The water is then funneled into a series of pools where rafts of lettuce float beneath energy efficient LED lights. Different varieties of lettuce reach down into the water, absorbing nutrients while filtering and cleaning the pool. Ieshia pulls up a raft of butter lettuce, carefully inspecting the long spindly roots. “These are beautiful roots!” she declares. “Normally we harvest once a week, if not more, depending how our crops turn out. We actually stay pretty busy at the Thorne Bay greenhouse.”
Over in Coffman Cove, the largest and most impressive of the school greenhouses is over 6,000 square feet. At full capacity Coffman Cove will be churning out 800 heads of lettuce a week. That’s a lot of greens.
But, greens aren’t all that these greenhouses produce. Water continues to move through the aquaponics system into a series of beds containing a very fine matrix material made of coconut husks, which fully filters the water. It then returns to the fish and the loop continues, nourishing everything from turnips and tomatoes to green onions and basil. The vegetables are packaged by students, served in school lunches, and delivered and sold to shops where they reach families throughout Prince of Wales.
INTEGRATED LEARNING: GROUNDING THE ‘COMMON CORE’
All four greenhouses are using adaptations of an aquaponics system. Originally, Thorne Bay tested hydroponics, but made the switch to aquaponics in order to diversify their crops and offer students more integrated learning opportunities. “We wanted to dive more into the process. Hydroponics felt like a mystery machine where you pumped chemicals in and lettuce came out,” says Megan Fitzpatrick, the SISD science teacher. “Aquaponics is more of a natural ecosystem approach to growing.” She is able to teach the nitrogen cycle, soil chemistry, plant biology and more. Students are also able to craft experiments. “It’s more engaging. There is a lot of flexibility,” Fitzpatrick explains.
The greenhouse does not replace the curriculum, it brings it to life. Students spend one hour of class time each day working with the program and experiential learning opportunities abound—for more than just chemistry and the life sciences. Students across the island are investigating ways to make their greenhouse programs as self-sustaining as possible, while learning how to conduct feasibility studies, identify niche markets, gauge supply and demand, and brand their products. They are also looking at ways to improve the system, exploring opportunities for saving energy while increasing food production.
“Working at this greenhouse, I’ve been able to learn how to grow food while also being able to learn how to manage a business and keep it running without having to depend on the school district. At the start, we had the school district buying the seeds and the supplies that we needed, but now we are able to pay them back and make a profit,” Ieshia asserts with pride.
The four greenhouses are part of a larger program that also includes raising poultry, growing apples, making and selling tortillas and pizza dough, and a student-run restaurant and storefront. This engaging combination of projects creates opportunities for teaching business skills, life skills, employment skills and responsibility in a meaningful and hands-on way. “When kids first started here they were so shy and didn’t want to talk about the greenhouse,” says Fitzpatrick. “Now, so many people come by and visit the greenhouse from the community and even the lieutenant governor has stopped by. Kids are learning public speaking skills,” she says. “When students are engaged, they retain and when they retain they are more confident.”
AN IMPACT YOU CAN TASTE
Rural Alaska is hungry for fresh food and innovation. “Our schools absolutely are the heartbeat of the community and play a vital role in the sustainability of these communities,” attests Colter Barnes, the school greenhouse manager on the island. Southeast Island School District is looking at their students as powerful assets for building more resilient communities, supporting the local economy, and addressing food system challenges, while receiving a top-notch education.
“I think the progressive districts are out there saying, how can we do more with less funding, how can we generate revenue? I have a thousand students in my building, how can I give them real learning opportunities that are connected to standards, their diploma, their interests, and strengthens our community, but also generates revenue. There is so much you can do with kids, they want to engage,” Barnes says.
“We need to teach kids healthy eating skills. They need to use knives to cut their food, enough of these heat-and-serve open boxes,” adds Megan Fitzpatrick. “I saw these kids when they first started in the greenhouse. They weren’t eating the stuff and now they’re fighting over it. Seeing kids recognize the healthy benefits of eating fresh vegetables and recognizing that they can do this at home, that is a life skill they can carry on through their adult life. That to me is the most rewarding.”
Back at the school cafeteria, the rewards keep on growing as more and more students swap egg rolls for rainbow chard.