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For thousands of years, warm equatorial waters from Indonesia and the Philippines have flowed north via the Kuroshio current stream, up to and along the Japanese coast, and made a right turn at the 45th parallel. They cross the ocean as part of the North Pacific current and then make a left before the bluffs of southern Oregon, traveling all the way up to the 60-degree line at Resurrection Bay in southern Alaska.
At high tide, they wash across a massive sedimentary gravel field in the port of Seward, about 100 miles south of Anchorage, and about 600 miles east of Siberia.
Is it cold in Seward, Alaska? Definitely; especially during winter, when each day comes with up to 18 hours of darkness and a big chunk of the population heads south to warmer, brighter climes. By March there are about 12 hours of daylight and residents begin returning home. Temperatures in March are between about 25 F and 40 F, so it’s cold — but scientists say it’s far warmer than it should be.
According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP) in Washington, “Alaska is among the fastest warming regions on Earth.” It is warming two to three times faster than the lower 48 states.
CBS News reported a record 50 F high in Anchorage on March 31 of this year and quoted local meteorologist Jeff Berardelli, said, “Alaska has seen an 11-degree spike in its average yearly temperature. By comparison, the average global rise in temperature since the late 1800s has been about 2 degrees.”
Crazy weather has become the norm everywhere, which is part of the reason for the Montreal Protocol and the Kigali Amendment, under which nations have agreed to move toward natural, global-warming-friendly refrigerants.
Trans-Critical C02 Heat Pumps
The GCRP says Alaska is “on the front lines of climate change,” and as it happens, Seward is at the forefront of large-scale trans-critical heat pump systems using R-744 — C02 refrigerant. One of its systems will be connected to 200-foot loops buried in the sedimentary gravel of Resurrection Bay with what’s left of the warm Philippine ocean water acting, especially at high tide, as a source of heat for a four-building district heating system.
It will displace 98 percent of the diesel fuel now being used to heat Seward city hall, the city hall annex, the community library and the fire hall, a total of about 56,000 square feet. Engineer and hot water veteran Andy Baker designed the new system, which is expected to be up and running by early 2020. It is estimated that the system will save the town about $25,000 in annual heating costs, compared to the fossil-fuel technology currently in use.
“Without grants, the recovery of the extra cost of this modern system would be about 9 or 10 years,” Baker said.
But with everyone worried about climate breakdown, the state provided funds to significantly reduce this period and help advance emission-free systems.
Baker notes that the critical equipment includes six Mayekawa C02 heat pumps that will achieve a coefficient of performance of 2.4. They are web-monitored and any leaks will be accompanied by real-time alerts to the operators. The heat pumps will be located in the library basement and hot water will be circulated to the other three buildings through an Alfa Laval heat exchanger to prevent contamination of the heat pumps. The oil and electric boilers will remain as a backup system.
Will the backup system be needed in the freezing cold temperatures of Alaska? “C02 heat pumps are cool science,” Baker said. “They provide hot water at 194 F. They’re well-designed, very reliable and you can monitor them without actually going into the room.”
Baker knows they’ll work in Seward because he included them as part of a larger, similar system a couple of years ago at the 20,000-square-foot Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) a few streets south of the new project. In this case, the savings on diesel are $15,000 every month.
“They were burning a ton of diesel fuel,” said Brennan Hickok, assistant city manager for Seward. “Andy had done a site visit and when Alaska Gov. Bill Walker did a tour in Seward, we were able to report a very favorable ground-source test. He was impressed and wanted to use it as a showcase. And the ASLC was already drawing sea water for its animal habitats.”
Baker noted, “They have a concrete deck area for seals, sea otters and sea lions. Step 1 was saline delivery cascading first to a 160 F building loop. Step 2 was domestic water for the heat exchanger up to 130 F in a 600-gallon tank. Step 3 was a heating coil and air handler for most of the basement area, and Step 4 was the radiant snow melt in the sea lion slab.”
Baker has lived in Alaska since 1998, working on cost-effective renewable energy systems. For many years, he organized an annual Anchorage Solar Tour. He designed many of the systems on the tour, which are mostly solar thermal.
Baker studied environmental engineering at Penn State University and worked as a project engineer for Buchart-Horn in Pennsylvania. He also has worked for Black & Veatch in San Diego, Boston and Lusaka, Zambia; and for HDR in Alaska.
When we interviewed him for this column, he was attending the ATMO refrigeration conference in Atlanta and collaborating with C02 specialists from Emerson.
“This technology is moving into the mainstream and the trans-critical C02 cycle is useful for hydronic heat,” Baker explained. “We’re on the front end of that movement and it’s going to grow. Once U.S. manufacturers begin to compete in the C02 heat pump market, we should see the cost of these units going down.”
To help minimize difficulties for manufacturers and refrigeration professionals, an event was organized recently in Washington that brought together senior representatives from the Heating Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International, the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America and others. They met with officials from the White House to accelerate final ratification of the international treaty on refrigerant phase-downs.
Although most countries have ratified the agreement, the industry is still in a state of uncertainty because the United States is not one of them. The concern is that without a clear policy and American leadership, manufacturing could move overseas. Uncertainty is unwelcome from distributors who are reportedly trying to avoid unnecessary regulatory and transportation complexities, manufacturers who are eager to make production decisions and contractors who are trying to plan training for updated procedural requirements.
‘We’re Going to Have to Stop Using Them’
“Our refrigeration systems have been leaking for years,” Baker said. “At this conference, one of the speakers said that 4 percent of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is synthetic refrigeration and Freon is 11 percent. It hangs up in the atmosphere for more than 500 years. There are seven billion of us on earth and we’re all running chillers and air conditioning and cars. What the HFCs were doing to the ozone, the synthetics are now doing with greenhouse gas. Once these refrigerants are in the atmosphere, we can’t break them down, so we’re going to have to stop using them.”
Baker noted that California, Washington and Vermont are already re-adopting the SNAP rules. California is providing incentives to move people off synthetics and onto natural refrigeration.
“These phase downs are imminent,” Baker said. “They are going to happen.”
One of the lessons Baker learned on the Seward projects is that good support from the manufacturer is essential.
“They’re pretty reliable, modern machines that don’t require much maintenance — a few valve replacements — but they’re new and you need some help,” Baker said. “The Mayekawa units are made in Hiroshima, Japan, and although we’re very happy with the support provided by them, we recognize they had to travel a long distance to get there.”
Baker said, “This market is going to grow and we’re going to need a local supply chain. Maybe Mayekawa will start manufacturing in the United States or possibly companies such as Emerson, WaterFurnace or ClimateMaster will jump in and start producing some packaged units. There is a Quebec company out of Canada that has introduced a product, so it’s beginning to happen. And it has to happen. Climate change is a big deal, and people are now starting to realize it.”
Seward’s ultra-modern R-744 district heating system might itself be thwarted by climate change. The currents and tides are all changing, so the sediment gravel presumably could, too. Down in Indonesia where the warm waters originate, tens of millions of citizens are in peril as Jakarta is sinking below the ocean at a rate of 33 inches every five years. Half of it is already below sea level.
It’s time for big ideas and significant action in the Pacific, in Alaska, everywhere. Designing and installing more clean systems such as those found in Seward can be part of a considerable redoubled effort to minimize climate breakdown.
If you’re not already working with cleaner systems, maybe you should start.