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.

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