OXFORD – School officials are investigating converting the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School to a heating system that would use biomass chips by September of next year. The move would save the district almost $400,000 annually.

“We have got to regain some control over our energy future. We have to get off that merry-go-round,” SAD 17 Superintendent Mark Eastman said Wednesday.

The plan is to convert 90 percent of the current oil burning system to a biomass system and to keep the current oil burners as a backup system.

While conversion to the proposed system would cost $1.5 million, Eastman said the payback would be less than five years. Not only would the energy cost savings be significant, but the move would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air by 906 tons annually.

“It’s nearly a $400,000 savings and we could pay it in less than five years,” Eastman said.

Officials say the school currently uses 90,649 gallons annually of oil. It is estimated 90 percent of that would be replaced with chips for a projected savings of $393,409 based on prices at the time of the study, $4.50 a gallon for oil versus $50 a ton for chips. Officials are now looking at finding the wood chips locally at the best price.

Although the price of oil has decreased from $4.50 a gallon to $4 a gallon since the initial study was done, Eastman said the comparative price of chips is 67 cents. “Chips at 67 cents versus $4 a gallon (for oil). That’s a wow for me,” Eastman said of the cost savings.

The district made reductions in energy consumption of 20 to 30 percent in the past few years by making boiler improvements, using more efficient lighting and lighting controls, eliminating the noon bus run for all-day kindergarten and many other initiatives. But increasing energy prices have wiped out those savings, Eastman said.

“We probably saved at least 20 percent but the cost of energy has gone up 100 percent,” said SAD 17 Board of Directors Chairman Ron Kugell, who along with other board members heard a presentation on the plan at their Monday night meeting.

School officials are also looking at other ways to reduce energy consumption including co-generation of electricity, a four-day school week and a single bus run combining elementary and secondary school students.

According to research by school officials, the high school is the best candidate for the conversion to biomass chips for a number of reasons including the fact that it is the largest and most used building and it has a relatively new heating system (1996). The biomass boiler would be located next to the existing boiler, tie into the current piping and be an easy fuel delivery. Current boilers would be kept as backup and one oil tank could be replaced with chip storage.

If the same plan was put into place at the Oxford Hills Middle School, the projected savings would be $126,880, according to information developed by school officials. The cost of conversion is unknown at this time.

Kugell said the school board will now await a final recommendation from the superintendent.

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