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Owner, Chena Hot Springs Resort
Commercial User, Chena Hot Springs, Alaska
Though largely untapped, Alaska is home to some of the most plentiful and diverse renewable energy resources in the country. Some of the best opportunities are in developing distributed generation facilities—like the geothermal system at Chena—which can help significantly reduce the dependence that many rural Alaskan villages and communities have on using diesel fuel for electric power and home heating.
In 2006, Bernie Karl installed a geothermal power system at the resort he owns in Alaska, but he earned his green credentials long before being environmentally conscious had the cachet it has today. One of 14 children in a Peoria, Illinois, family, Karl never threw anything away out of necessity.
"We were taught recycling from day one," he said. "My parents were the two wealthiest people in the whole world, they just didn't have any money. So, you recycled your clothes. You recycled your shoes. You recycled everything. You grew a garden and everything that was leftover went into a compost pile that went into the garden. There was no waste."
His family's "waste not, want not" ethos helped shape Karl's professional career. For more than 25 years, his K&K Recycling has found new uses for other people's castoffs, including a stint recycling the materials from the Fairbanks, Alaska, landfill. "I recycle everything from light bulbs to jet engines and everything in between," said Karl. "I put a lot of the stuff back to work."
Karl purchased Chena Hot Springs Resort 10 years ago and immediately set about making the vacation spot, located 56 miles northeast of Fairbanks, as self-sufficient as possible. On the first day Karl took ownership, he drilled a geothermal well to tap into the hot springs to heat the resort's water and 44 buildings, including greenhouses where resort staff grow produce for guests and employees.
By the end of the first week, Karl had stopped burning diesel fuel to provide heat, saving thousands of dollars. "When I started this project I was spending 100 dollars a day and fuel was 94 cents [a gallon]." Today, he said, "If I were not making some power geothermally, I'd be spending over $3,000 a day on diesel fuel." Karl also stopped using a large propane furnace, three 120-gallon propane hot water heaters, and $10,000 worth of wood for heating.
Since 2006, Karl has used geothermal energy to provide nearly all of the resort's electricity needs. Citing a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, Karl says that harnessing just 2 percent of Earth's internal energy could provide 2,000 times more energy than the world currently consumes, all free of dangerous global warming emissions. With that stat in mind, Karl set about using a sliver of that potential energy source himself.
Thanks to a new United Technologies turbine design, Karl is able to use the water at Chena Hot Springs that normally would not be hot enough to generate electricity. Known as a binary system, the 160 degree-water heats up another fluid that boils at a lower temperature. The system uses the steam generated by that fluid to run a turbine that produces electricity.
The beauty of the United Technologies system, Karl says, is that it can be mass produced and deployed across the country. "These things can be manufactured in mass quantities and really make a huge difference in our environment, and in the way people live, and in the way people think about electricity."
Karl has other big plans for Chena Hot Springs and beyond. Later this year, Karl hopes to unveil the state's first hydrogen-powered vehicle he'll use on his property. Meanwhile, his resort's greenhouses are home to 100 experiments, all in pursuit of Karl's dream to one day grow the resort's food entirely on the premises. Outside the resort, Karl has been the catalyst for geothermal energy projects in Florida and Alabama, which will erect United Technologies turbines on abandoned offshore oil rigs.
Living sustainably is clearly Karl's personal passion, but as he points out, it's a smart way to do business. It certainly has been at least one selling point for tourists. Fourteen percent of the guests cite the resort's environmental efforts as a reason they stayed there. "People chose to spend their money where somebody's being responsible," he said. "I think that is what it's going to take to make this energy wave sweep across America."