SAD 58 eyes wood heat in future

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SALEM TOWNSHIP – SAD 58 Superintendent Quenten Clark and district Head of Operations Dan Worcester hope to become front-runners of a new trend in Maine by becoming the first district in the state (in the 21st century) to use wood to heat their schools.

Their plan is still years away from fruition, but now, in the midst of a war in Iraq and with oil prices showing no sign of falling back to their pre-Katrina level, the superintendent says it’s imperative to start finding new ways to heat his schools.

“I don’t (like) to have to rely on somebody 10,000 miles away to get my fuel,” he said, especially since, “if anything goes wrong anywhere down the supply line – anything from an epidemic, to a terrorist, to a governmental upheaval, to hurricane Katrina, you’ve got problems,” Clark said.

But is switching from oil to wood even feasible? Clark says “yes,” citing about 30 schools in Vermont that made the switch during the past 15 to 20 years.

According to Vermonter Steve Murray, who oversees the wood chip boiler in Barre Town School, the wood-heat system started saving the town money immediately.

“When we started this we had electric heat and spent almost $200,000 a year on electricity. When we had the wood-burning system put in, we saved – right off – about $100,000 a year.” Barre has been using the system for about 10 years now, Murray says, and “we’ve had really good luck with it.” And even though the price of wood chips has gone up from $25 per ton to $50 per ton, “we’re still saving money,” spending about $30,000 last year on fuel.

Worcester said Mt. Abram High School uses more than 30,000 gallons of oil a year – which, at nearly $2 per gallon, is a crippling expense for the district. Wood would cost less, but the price of a wood-burning boiler is high. Worcester says one estimate he got topped $200,000. Vermont schools can afford to make the transition because the state has a subsidy program for districts trying to switch to alternative energy sources.

According to Worcester, and Paul Frederick of the Vermont Department of Forests and Recreation, the Vermont program gives schools grant money to pay for a large chunk of the startup cost, and the help ends up saving the state money that would otherwise be spent subsidizing the districts’ fuel costs.

Maine has no such program – yet. But in early April, state Rep. Tom Saviello, D-Wilton, said if he is re-elected this year, he plans to seriously look into creating a bill that would subsidize schools attempting to switch over. His district needs jobs more than anything, he said, and wood is one of the Western Mountains’ main resources.

Clark sees the possibility of strengthening the timber industry as a very real side benefit of his plan. Wood-chip fueled boilers consume much smaller amounts of wood than, say, paper mills do, but in a region that has lost scores of mills in recent years, any boost to the timber economy would make a difference.

Members of the SAD 58 board certainly will not find money to pay for even one wood-burning boiler this year or next. While reviewing Clark’s proposed 2006-07 budget, they have seen presentations by dozens of tearful students and teachers in the past few weeks, before the board to defend programs members may be forced to cut for lack of money. So for the time being, while Clark and Worcester plan to continue looking for ways for SAD 58 to afford the equipment on its own, Clark says he’s pinning his hopes on Augusta.

Frederick, in Vermont, says his state’s move to subsidize the cost of buying wood-fired boilers has ended up saving the state and districts money in the end. It’s a clean, low-emission, renewable energy source, and while the price of wood inflates like everything else, Frederick says timber prices rise much more slowly, and much more steadily, than oil prices do.

Another 30 Vermont schools, now unable to ignore the post-Katrina budget pinch, are looking into making the switch in the next few years, Frederick says, and he’s not surprised Mainers are beginning to look into wood heat themselves. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said.

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