Researchers studying whether electric heaters can help reduce air pollution in Interior Alaska

a woman kneeling next to an electric heater
Alana Vilagi, a researcher with UAF’s Alaska Center for Energy and Power, shows the ceramic bricks inside an electric thermal storage heater. Fifty of these stoves will be installed in homes in the North Pole area to help reduce PM2.5 caused by wood smoke. (Amanda Byrd/ACEP)

University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers plan to study the impact of new electric thermal storage heaters in North Pole over the next three winters.

The goal of the study is to learn whether the heaters can help reduce home heating costs and improve air quality, especially the worst PM2.5 particulates, by reducing use of wood heat.

Dr. Dominique Pride, of the UAF-based Alaska Center for Energy and Power, is leading the study. She said the heaters act like a thermal battery.

“A coil heats up high-density, ceramic bricks, and it’s in an insulated compartment,” Pride said. “And so that heat can be stored in that compartment for up to 24 hours.”

For the study, Pride and her research associate, Alana Vilagi, picked two neighborhoods north of Hurst Road, where some terrible winter air quality has been recorded. Homes are trapped in a bowl of land that is capped by a warm air inversion, sealing air pollution in.

“Once the temperature inversion traps air close to the ground, then everything that we emit into the air just sits there, for days, weeks — however long the inversion lasts until it finally blows out,” said Pride.

Pride said burning wood for home heating is currently the largest source of PM2.5 air pollution in the area. It is also the cheapest. There are no natural gas lines installed in the neighborhoods picked for the study.

“PM 2.5 is very bad for your health. But, on the other hand, wood is by far the cheapest way to heat your home, especially households that don’t have a lot of money to spare,” Pride said. “They just can’t afford to heat 100% with heating fuel oil. It puts a lot of households in a difficult position of choosing between healthier air quality and more affordable home heating.”

In the first year of the study, about 100 households will get Purple Air outdoor air quality sensors to gather baseline data. About 20 of those households will also get a weather station to gather weather data.

In the second year of the study, one neighborhood will be selected as a control group, and the other will have 50 electric thermal storage heaters installed in homes that currently use fuel oil and wood.

Participants will receive a monthly credit on their electric bill.

“If we install these into people’s homes, A. Do they use them? B. If they do use them, how does it affect home energy costs? and C. How does it affect air quality?” Pride said. “Because maybe they use them to displace a portion of their wood heat, or maybe they don’t use them at all, or maybe they use them and it displaces the heating oil component of their energy next for their house.”

Pride said they are still recruiting for study participants.

“We’ve gone knocking on doors in North Pole, and we are signing people up,” she said.

Folks can find out more about the program at the website the Alaska Center for Energy and Power set up for the field study.

The study will have implications for other places in Alaska, particularly where there is sometimes excess electricity, like in villages with wind turbines.

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