Friday, October 4, 2013

The Tanana Report

Tanana is a village that feels very Not-Isolated. Because it's only a 50-minute flight from Fairbanks at a cost of only $300 round trip, and because there are over two scheduled flights per day, it feels less isolated and more connected to the larger world than most villages, even more so than some that are road-accessible. That twice-daily mail plane is a fact of life, and people come out to the airport with packets and boxes labelled with nothing more than, "To: Name, Tanana; From: Name, Fairbanks; Hold for pickup".

Because of this constant contact with Fairbanks, my traditional Arvay-gifts of sacks of potatoes, carrots, apples, and onions appear to be less impressive and luxurious in Tanana than they are in more isolated communities, but I just can't think of another appropriate host-gift... Anyway, I've found that it's better to err on the side of acting "too rural" than to err on the side of acting "too urban"!

Leaving Fairbanks, it was obvious from the surrounding hills that it's still Fall:

Approaching Tanana:

The famous wood chomper! You feed in a log, and it cuts it to 21" lengths and splits them at the same time! One person can operate it!

Giant log! This is from driftwood pulled from the Yukon. One forester estimated that about 300,000 cords of firewood come down the Yukon each year.

The Tanana City government is gradually transitioning to heat all city buildings with hydronic wood-fired boilers. One of the goals of this program was not just energy independence but keeping money in the local economy. They set the price of firewood at a certain price per cord (currently $300), and buy firewood from anyone who is willing to cut and split it.

The problem is that some local folks are getting greedy and less inclined to travel to legal lands where cutting is allowed. Trees are being cut from private property. Some local people are plenty angry, and I can't blame them. Also, cutting wood too close to the steep banks along the road is destabilizing the hillside and making it susceptible to erosion:

And then, of course, people are concerned about long-term sustainability. I saw this poster on the community bulletin board at the store:

Even pulling wood from the river is not a perfect solution:

The downriver communities (Ruby, Galena, Kaltag, etc) are understandably upset that the Tanana residents are pulling the best and most accessible wood from the river before they even have a chance.

I don't know what the answers are, but I do know that the Tanana City biomass program has also done a lot of good. Each wood-fired boiler displaces annually about 5000-6000 gallons of diesel. The money saved by the city so far has enabled building a new children’s playground, and improvement and weatherization of the school and teacher housing. Lining the school's walls with foam board has resulted in saving 7000 gallons of oil in the first year. And that did not cost any trees!

This is an Econoburn, a down-drafted system that requires the user to build the fire upside-down from what we wood heat users are accustomed to. One builds a pile of logs, then puts finer logs on top, and then puts kindling on top of that and starts the fire. The drafting system pulls the heat and combustion gasses downward, so the entire thing is essentially upside down. It was sort of challenging on my pea brain.

The firehouse, home of the Village Public Safety Officer, who also manages the surrounding forest and is trying to track down the illegal cutting. This is where I stay in Tanana. The VPSO is a very warm, friendly man who is also an excellent cook!

The newly-installed GARN systems in the school:

I lovelovelove the GARNS. Of all of the wood-fired boiler systems I have seen, the GARNs are the most robust and user-friendly. They also burn super clean; an emissions probe stuck into a GARN probe read less particulate matter than that in open air in downtown Fairbanks!

The water circulation system behind the GARNs. The GARNs heat water in a jacket, and the hot water circulates to heat the building. In theory, that's all you need. However, the efficiency of the GARNs is so high that most often I have seen people use a huge heat exchanger plate to use the hot water to heat glycol, and the glycol loop can then heat a much larger area than water can.

The plumber that did this has a long relationship with the city of Tanana. He has a private plane and flies in and out at will. He did the work for me without charging me his travel costs! He's also an impressively skilled and highly organized craftsman who put me in mind of our own lab manager back home, DL. (DL's reaction: "Of course!" Then he turned to a visitor. "Flying plumbers are totally normal in Alaska, you know.")

He sometimes scribbles notes on the walls:

One problem with village life is inaccessibility of normal services. Deionized, filtered water is Not a Thing in Tanana. They pull water from the Yukon. They filtered it with a 5 micron filter, but still get this sediment in the pipes:

Here is the Yukon. It always impresses me:

And the confluence as the Tanana flows into it. Whenever I am in other Tanana River communities, I look at it and imagine how long it would take me to canoe or ski home! (in this case, close to a month!)

Solar panels, plus a met tower. Hope for a wind turbine?

The grand city hall of Tanana:

And the store:

And the Episcopal Church:

And the Catholic Church:

The gas station:

Gas is only $6.25 a gallon! But why would you need more than three gallons, in a town that is a mile wide and not connected to anywhere else by road?

The Yukon provides nice spots for picnics:

The busy airport terminal:

The elders' residence:

The school:

And the State-owned liquor store--the only one allowed in town. Most villages are dry, but not this one:

I happened to see a barge arrive! The barges that go up and down the Yukon are in general the cheapest way for off-road communities to get goods during the ice-free times of the year. This one was from Crowley:

The mountains North of town had termination dust:

Minto Flats! I'm almost home!


Allmycke said...

Oh, how I long to be back in The North! As in - NWT, the Yukon or Alaska. I almost hang on every word you write. Thank you.

Arvay said...

Why, thank you! That is such a big compliment!

mdr said...

Beautiful pictures and good documentary. I am curious, how many employees in that city hall? Do they have computers?

Arvay said...

Yes, hey have desktop computers, which have the only available internet access in town! No one sits at a desk all day, but people come and go...

Anonymous said...

How did Tanana afford the GARN system? Haines is inching towards biomass burners but it's all about pellets here (for now).

Oh the Chomper... my little heart pitter pats!

Arvay said...

AEA funded some of them with grants:

Bear Ketzler funded some of them with City funds. I know a lot of people would love to make pellet-making into a viable industry in the Southeast. POW island has a lumber yard that is making chips out of scrap wood, so chips may become viable, too. Chips are more challenging to manage with moisture control and transport though. Have you been to Ketchikan lately? There is a pellet mill there now. The Ketch library and several city buildings are being heated with pellets. :)

M.E. Masterson said...

Thank you for the tour...

Tom said...

Definitely want to visit Tanana one day.
Thanks for the report.