Study looks at new way to make ice for salmon fleet

Ice is an integral part of many salmon boats’ chilling operations, but getting it isn’t so easy: producing and distributing ice to the fleet is a major undertaking with many players each summer. A recent study looked at making one piece of the puzzle – creating the ice – a little simpler, but that doesn’t mean any changes are on the way right now.

Making ice to keep Bristol Bay fish cold after they're caught is an energy-intensive endeavor, but a recent study looked at how it could be done a little more efficiently. (Photo courtesy of KDLG)
Making ice to keep Bristol Bay fish cold after they’re caught is an energy-intensive endeavor, but a recent study looked at how it could be done a little more efficiently. (Photo courtesy of KDLG)

The Alaska Energy Authority and Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference worked on an initial study of how ice might be created using energy available at Dillingham’s power plant alongside a contractor. On paper, it’s do-able, said SWAMC economist Eric O’Brien. But real-life issues like space and distribution of ice might make it difficult at the current power plant site.

“We can’t say definitively if the project is a go-ahead, because we had such a narrow scope,” O’Brien said. “But in the terms of the project, it looked feasible to develop ice at the power plant – if you had a magic power plant that you could build ice around.”

Such an effort would use excess energy at the power plant for what’s called “absorption chilling.” It uses recovered heat to chill with a refrigerant gas.

According to the report, that’s a re-emerging technology, already being used across Alaska, including at an ice plant at Kotzebue’s power plant, to keep the ice museum cold at Chena Hot Springs resort near Fairbanks, and even at the Auction Block seafood processing plant in Homer.

But, O’Brien said, the existing power plant is not a magical one, so it’s not necessarily easy to adapt the power plant to use heat differently.

“It’s a real powerhouse, with real physical constraints and space limitations and piping and powerlines and infrastructure all around the property and to have that much ice at location at the Nushagak Electric Power Co-op, you would have to move that ice to tidewater,” he said.

Those considerations didn’t make it into the report.

“We just simply stated that ice could drop at location at the power plant and a truck could drive it easily to the dock a couple miles away,” he said. “And that part is OK. But when you got into the details of actually delivering ice, it became a different story.”

There’s plenty the study didn’t include, O’Brien explained.

“This was pre-feasibility,” he said. “So we cracked open the crystal ball if you will to see what is feasible. But we didn’t dig in. We didn’t get the ownership numbers. We didn’t find an exact location where the physical absorption chilling plant would exist. We had a site but we didn’t have the physical outline. And then when you get down to the physical engineered design. That is the next step.”

All those pieces are not up to SWAMC or AEA. O’Brien said three main stakeholders would need to be involved for such a project to take the next step: the city of Dillingham, the electric cooperative and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

Those entities do not have any immediate plans to do a complete feasibility study, let alone making changes to the power plant.

But, O’Brien said that the study could be used when new power plants are developed, and also identified other communities as having a high potential for the project – like Levelock.

“The best time to put this infrastructure in place would be during a new build, when you could create what would otherwise be a magic facility,” O’Brien said. “ … Then it’s not magic. Then it’s just the design that was put forth. I don’t think that there was any technical unattainable aspects of the project, it was just a matter of bolting a new project onto existing infrastructure and the limitations revolved around that.”

O’Brien also cautioned that another piece of the project is influx: demand for ice. The initial study assumes that 40 percent of salmon boats in the bay need ice. But as processors begin to require chilled fish, it’s possible that more boats will switch to refrigerated seawater systems, and fewer boats might need ice.

“Well, if those boats all required ice, you’d have a huge demand for ice, and it makes the project that much more viable. However, there’s nothing that says that those boats couldn’t then go RSW systems, and if there was all of a sudden a fallen demand for ice, you could be stuck with a piece of static infrastructure that wouldn’t be very easily repurposed. Unless Dillingham wanted to then start exporting slushies.”

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