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Alaska Marine Research Institute Goes Green

Credit: Chris Arend Photography - NOAA's 66,000 square foot Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau, Alaska, is now heated using 100-percent green energy, saving taxpayers an estimated $360,000 dollars a year. Credit: Chris Arend Photography - NOAA's 66,000 square foot Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau, Alaska, is now heated using 100-percent green energy, saving taxpayers an estimated $360,000 dollars a year.

Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

That’s how much carbon the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute (TSMRI) in Juneau, Alaska, is putting into the environment to heat the 66,000 square foot NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) facility, now that it has shut down its oil-fueled heat pumps and has made the transition to a new heat source: cool seawater. 

The process is truly genius.

As a marine research laboratory, more than 600 gallons per minute of seawater was already being pumped into the building using energy produced from a hydroelectric power source. The steady flow of seawater that is so essential to the marine life housed at the lab turns out to contain quite a bit of energy. Scientists and engineers figured out how to take those hundreds of gallons of 38-degree F water, extract 4-degrees from it, and use that energy to heat a smaller amount of water to 120-degrees F, and then pump that hot water through the building for heat.

“The closest thing I can compare it to is a refrigerator,” said TSMRI Facility

Credit: NOAA - Facility manager John Cooper talks about the piping that went into making NOAA's Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute carbon neutral.Credit: NOAA - Facility manager John Cooper talks about the piping that went into making NOAA's Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute carbon neutral.

Manager John Cooper. “A refrigerator extracts the heat from inside to keep the food cool, and expels that heat out the back. This is basically recovering that expelled heat and using it to heat the building.”

The seawater heat pump system came online in February. Cooper kept the oil-powered heat pumps idling until mid-April to allow for an overlap during the testing period.

The official transition to fully green energy occurred at about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, when TSMRI shut off the two oil-operated boilers, resulting in the new heat pump system heating the entire research institute. The seawater heat pump, coupled with hydroelectricity supplied by Alaska Electric Light and Power Company, means the laboratory is truly powered by green energy.

“TSMRI is heated by 100-percent green energy. No other facility of this size in NOAA can say that,” said Cooper. “One of the neat things is, at this facility we were able to go green and save costs, too.”

The seawater energy recovery system will replace 60,000 gallons of heating oil annually, saving taxpayers an estimated $130,000 a year. The system is expected to recoup the half-million dollars invested in it in about five years.

The cost of the 2-year project was economical to begin with, because most of the work to construct it was done in-house by NOAA maintenance mechanics and technicians.

“It is a testament to the capability of our federal facilities staff,” said TSMRI Deputy Director Steve Ignell. “They had to figure out how to get a spaghetti maze of piping into a space already filled with pipes for the water pump system. Retrofitting those heavy pipes was a real challenge because they had to be supported properly to survive seismic activity.”

 

Credit: NOAA - One of two heat pumps that extracts 4 degrees of heat from 38-degree seawater and uses that energy to heat the 66,000-square foot Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau, Alaska.Credit: NOAA - One of two heat pumps that extracts 4 degrees of heat from 38-degree seawater and uses that energy to heat the 66,000-square foot Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau, Alaska.

Jim Rehfeldt of Alaska Energy Engineering, LLC, designed the project along with Jack Christiansen, the first TSMRI facility manager.

“They [TSMRI] had so much going for this project already—the natural resources needed, as well as the talent and skill of the NOAA team,” said Rehfeldt. “We’ve never had another project quite like this one.”

The seawater heat pump is the last of three projects the NOAA facility has spearheaded to reach zero carbon use from a starting point of 120,000 gallons of fuel oil usage per year. Since opening in May 2007, environmentally and fiscally conscious managers and employees have worked together to reduce laboratory air flows (a source of heat loss), and to recover heat from the fume and canopy exhaust system in the lab. Overall, eliminating the use of 120,000 gallons of oil per year reduces costs by about $360,000 annually. The completion of this final project in a multi-year cost and carbon emissions cutting campaign has reduced the facility’s total carbon foot print to only the emissions from its service vehicles. 

The new, year-round seawater heat recovery system produces enough energy to heat 60 houses. It could be used as an energy recovery model throughout the U.S. In fact, analysis is currently underway to see if a similar technology could be used to heat NOAA’s Kodiak facility.

 “A lot of good things come out of Alaska, and this is one,” said Ignell. “Now that we have this success story, we hope to export this technology to other buildings.”

TSMRI maintenance mechanics Tommy Abbas and Gordon Garcia led the construction with a team including Mark Hoover, Mike Anderson, Chris Cunningham and Jim Heckler and local contractors.