STRONG – Strong’s Energy Team spent much of the past year playing detective, investigating ways their stately 80-year-old Forster Memorial Building was costing more to heat and cool town offices than necessary.

Tom Connelie, an Efficiency Maine-certified energy auditor, inspected the building and found dozens of ways to save energy costs.

Next, A. J. Ballard of Bravo Zulu Energy in Topsham crunched the numbers and presented the team with options.

Selectman Michael Carleton and members of the community energy team found that converting to wood heat would save at least $5,000 annually, calculating on paying the same $2.50 per gallon they had locked in that year. They applied for a Wood To Energy grant from the Maine Forest Service’s Department of Conservation to buy a pellet boiler. This week, they learned they were one of 10 Maine applicants approved for the funding.

“This news has been a real boost for us as a town, because we’ve figured in significant cost savings just changing from oil to wood,” Carleton said. “We have to watch every penny we spend, and this is one change we look forward to making by next winter. This makes all those night and weekend hours we spent worth it.”

At the March town meeting, the team and selectmen asked voters to approve an energy ordinance and any additional funding to install the pellet boiler. With 2009 fuel costs of $9,676, or 82 percent of the building’s energy budget, and electricity costs of $2,135, or 18 percent, voters didn’t hesitate. They also approved adding digital thermostats, an on-demand hot water heater, and several new windows.

Geneva Wood Fuels’ general manager, and a member of the team, Jeff Allen, can look from his office window to the town office building across the street. He was delighted with the news and optimistic about the town’s future.

“This will strengthen the economic footing and well-being of our entire community, and even those around us,” he said.

His employees produce wood pellets for residential and commercial stoves and boilers, and generations of his family have lived in the area, raised their own families, and watched all the wood products mills close over the last decade. Other local businesses that flourished when residents had jobs have had to close their doors.

“This opportunity will help to sustain the local business profile by increasing the demand for our wood pellet product,” he said.

The company’s Maine Choice pellets fuel the SAD 58 system’s boilers in Phillips, Kingfield, and Strong elementary schools, and Mt. Abram High School. The Foster Memorial Building houses the library, municipal offices, meeting rooms, and a large function hall and a dining room, and the mill is “right across the road,” Allen noted.

The pellet mill uses two tons of wood for every ton of pellets produced, Allen explained, so woodsmen and truckers will have more work with the change from oil to wood, which is a renewable resource. The economic trickle-down effect also will benefit stores, garages and subcontractors.

According to Maine Forest Service’s Senior Planner Tom Wood, Maine’s forest industry has a more than a $10 billion impact on the state’s economy, with the largest payroll in the state. More than 20,000 people are employed in the industry.

“This well-deserved award reflects hard work by the town’s leaders and citizens over the last four years,” Mary Ann Hayes, project adviser and Maine Rural Partners executive director, said. “They have had to rethink their strategic assets after losing over 300 manufacturing jobs.”

Hayes and the MRP staff will continue to work with the town’s energy team to find other resources. Financial support was provided by USDA Rural Development, DECD’s Office of Community Development, and Efficiency Maine.

Entities receiving wood-to-energy grants

Carrabec High School, Anson

City of Gardiner

Falmouth School Department, Falmouth

Fort Fairfield School, Fort Fairfield

Messalonskee School, Oakland

Millinocket Regional Hospital, Millinocket

Northern Maine Community College, Presque Isle

Town of Mechanic Falls

Town of Strong

University of Maine at Fort Kent

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