The electric bill was staggering. With $400,000 being spent to heat the Mount Wachusett Community College campus four winters ago, school officials were desperate for a new source of energy.
So they turned to woodchips.
The school had just converted its electric heating operation into a system that runs on biomass – products like wood and agricultural waste.
Although some were worried that burning 1,000 tons of woodchips wouldn’t generate enough energy to heat the 500,000-square-foot campus, their doubts melted away when the system worked and heating costs plunged with winter temperatures.
Instead of shelling out nearly a half million dollars for electric heat, the college paid a mere $31,000 for the woodchips. The savings is so great that school officials say the $2 million heating system conversion cost will pay for itself within 10 years.
At the same time, Mount Wachusett has so far reduced its greenhouse gas emissions – a polluted mix mostly containing carbon dioxide – by nearly 19 percent.
“We started out by saying we’ve got to do something to cut our energy costs,” said Rob Rizzo, associate director of Mount Wachusett’s forest and wood products institute. “But our goals were also to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and teach our students about renewable energy sources.”
Along with the biomass plant, the school may also soon start using biodiesel fuel and is studying whether it would be worthwhile to build a wind turbine to generate some additional power.
“We’re pretty … green here,” Rizzo said.
Tim Maker, executive director of the nonprofit Biomass Energy Resource Center in Montpelier, Vt., said about 30 schools in his state are heated with woodchips. He said biomass heating plants are popular in Montana, Nevada, Utah, North Dakota and Idaho, where forests provide a renewable supply of wood.
“Biomass is a commonsense approach to getting fuel,” Maker said. “When you look out the window, chances are you’ll see trees. So you start asking if your fuel is going to come from Iraq or that hillside out your window?”
At Mount Wachusett Community College, the biomass plant hasn’t only saved the college money. Trimming utility bills has allowed the school to keep student fees steady for the last three years.
College President Daniel Asquino estimated that the lower costs of operating a biomass heating plant has saved the average student about $400 a year in fees that would otherwise have been increased to help pay for the rising price of electricity.
“We wanted to look students in the eye and say we’re really doing something good,” Rizzo said. “It’s great to save money, but we also want to be making a real difference.”
— Associated Press
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