Out of the steam

  • Tue Jan 5th, 2010 9:05pm

By Mina Williams Enterprise editor

Eco-champion and Edmonds resident Stan Gent leads 100-plus year-old Seattle Steam on a forward-thinking mission to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

Since 1893 the privately-owned utility has provided thermal energy through 18 miles of underground pipes to 200 office buildings, hospitals, hotels and college campuses in downtown Seattle and on First Hill.

Now Seattle Steam, under Gent as chief executive officer, is moving down the “green” highway, creating jobs along with a sustainable model of energy creation.

“In the energy business you have to be ahead of trends and take action,” Gent said. “Greenhouse gas will be a deal changer. Those who don’t perceive it are at risk of making a mistake.”

By July, new hybrid boilers on Western Avenue, below Pike Place Market, will take the company on an innovation journey procuring clean urban-sourced wood waste — rather than natural gas from Canada — and burning it to create both thermal energy and materials for concrete. Wood waste chunked into baseball-size pieces originally from pallets, sawmills and construction sites, will be burned at a rate of 250 tons per day. This will move the centenarian company toward lowering its carbon footprint by 45,000 metric tons annually, a 50 percent reduction. This is in keeping with standards set by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

“It is important that we all need to take steps to reduce greenhouse gases,” Gent said. He has been with the company since 2004. “I believe we can’t all wait for the government to tell us what to do.” He envisions Seattle Steam as an early developer in reducing carbon emissions.

“Steam may be old school, but it is part of the environmentally friendly future,” Gent said. “It’s convenient to use clean, urban wood. We desire to be a part of the solution. We do what we need to do and what is right in the hope of making money while reducing the carbon emissions in Seattle.”

It’s all about climate change, said Gent, shifting steam-generating fuel from fossil-based to renewable sources in an effort to shrink greenhouse gases and stem climate shifts.

Gent’s first realization that the climate was changing came while he was a young man in his native Ireland.

“I noticed climate change and I was an early acceptor of the global warming theory,” he said. “Before I was 10, I could remember ice skating on a pond behind my house routinely. I could do it every year. When I left (Ireland) the pond wasn’t freezing at all any more. As I flew more (for business) I noticed that what was once clear skies were now cloudy with pollution.”

The new boilers are poised to run seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and are to produce 85,000 pounds of steam per hour. This innovation, effectively replacing fossil fuel with biomass, has been successfully introduced in other North American and European cities.

Seattle Steam continues to challenge energy paradigms. It is currently working toward generating electricity with a turbine at its Post Avenue plant in Seattle. A $75 million plant will be partially funded by a federal stimulus grant of $18.75 million from the Department of Energy.