When the Renewable Energy Fair started seven years ago at Chena Hot Springs near Fairbanks, a lot of what we saw back then wasn't tried and true. Today, many of those technologies -- wind, solar and biomass -- are in use across Alaska, where some of the highest energy costs in the nation have made necessity the mother of invention.  

One of the displays this weekend that attracted attention was an electric snowmobile, developed by students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Isaac Thompson, a UAF electrical engineering graduate student, helped with the design that continues to be a work in progress.

Thompson says riding this snowmachine is a very different experience from one with a gasoline engine. For one thing, there’s no smell. And it’s quiet. 

“What you hear is the track underneath it,” says Thompson. “And if you’re in deep snow, you’re barely even hearing that.  It’s almost like being on a snowboard.”   

The machine can hit speeds of up to 70 miles an hour.  In a recent competition in Greenland it performed well at 40 below. The main drawback:  it can only go about 20 miles on one charge.

Thompson says even a 20 mile range might be useful in a small village, where gas costs can run as high as eight to twelve dollars a gallon. 

“It’s a whole lot cheaper to pull electricity from the power plant than it is to pour gas in the machine,”  Thompson told a group of people who had come to check out the machine.  

One of those included a seventh grade Big Lake student, Isaac Hansen, who believes that most cars will be electric by the time he grows up.  

“I think it’s nice that people are actually doing something about gasoline prices in Alaska,” says Hansen.  “I listen to my dad talk to my mom about gas prices and how they’re bad.”   

Some of the products on display are already helping to cut costs. 

Chad Schumaker of Superior Pellet Fuels, which has a manufacturing plant between North Pole and Fairbanks, says the energy fair is two-way street.

He says it’s a chance for the public to learn about what’s new -- and to give their feedback, which leads to more innovation.    

“The more we try raw material mixtures, the better our product gets,” says Schumaker. 

Schumaker has samples of pellets made from local woods like spruce and birch. It’s taken a few years of experimenting to learn how to process these woods, so that they burn efficiently in a wood stove.

Each bag costs about six dollars. Schumaker says it takes about a bag-and-a-half to heat a Fairbanks home on a cold winter day.   

Among cities in the United States, home heating costs in Fairbanks rank at the top, because of the community’s reliance on diesel fuel. Wood pellets now offer an alternative to oil. 

“If you replace that by burning wood pellets, it’s going to equate to a 40 percent cost savings on heating your home,” says Schumaker. 

Pellet technology on a bigger scale was also featured at the Chena energy fair.

Chena Power is a recycling business that was started by Bernie Karl, owner of Chena Hot Springs. It takes cardboard and paper trash, collected from the Fort Wainwright Army Post and the UAF campus, and turns it into chunky candy bar-sized pellets that are burned in a biomass power plant near Fairbanks.  It also utilizes a smoke stack-free design.  (Next page)