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home : education October 15, 2018

10/11/2011 11:56:00 AM
Biomass boiler project heats up
Leland Bliss inspects the new biomass by John Griffith
+ click to enlarge
Leland Bliss inspects the new biomass by John Griffith

By John Griffith

The biomass boiler at Sisters High School will be officially brought on-line during Governor John Kitzhaber's visit to Sisters High School on Monday, October 17 at 2 p.m.

The new biomass boiler will burn pellets made from wood scrap (tops, limbs, etc.) to preheat the supply water for the existing diesel and propane systems. Under normal conditions, the existing non-biomass systems would remain off, providing makeup heat only during an extreme cold snap.

The total project, four years in the making, cost $350,000 and is projected to save SHS between $35,000 to $65,000 per year in direct costs alone.  The district paid for the biomass boiler project out of the Lundgren Mill contingency fund, which will be reimbursed with the savings in energy costs at the rate of at least $35,000 per year.

It is estimated that the system will use between 300 and 350 tons of pellets per year.  The first competitively bid contract for pellets was awarded to Pacific Pellet in Redmond last week. Pacific Pellet makes premium low- ash, high-heat-content pellets from pine and juniper.  Use of this type of pellet could tie into the juniper eradication projects in Central Oregon.

Aggressive implementation of biomass technology was a major plank in Governor Ktizhaber's election campaign, and after his election in January, he wasted no time implementing his Oregon Forest Products Energy Project in February. The project will pay for between six and 12 detailed feasibility and engineering studies on developing biomass co-generation plants at existing forest products businesses.

The project for Sisters School district started three years before Kitzhaber's election, when Benny Benson, president of the local firm Energyneering Systems Inc. (ESI) came to Sisters School District with the suggestion to look at a range of renewable energy options.  As it turned out, biomass was one option opportunity to invest in renewable energy and actually save money.  Heating oil is expensive and the price is very volatile.

"If you buy heating oil, 80 to 90 percent of every dollar you spend not only leaves the community, but goes out of state and may even go international," said Phil Chang of the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council (COIC). "Every single dollar you spend on biomass stays in the state and makes jobs making fuel."

Chang has been working on biomass projects for COIC, including the SHS project, for the last seven years.

A year ago the SHS construction class dug trenches, installed rebar and built forms for the concrete slab that houses the silos for the boiler. Construction students at SHS did some of the site prep work.

Benny Benson has offered to get the use of a portable pelletizer so students could actually use local slash, even off the school property, to heat the school, and learn a myriad of lessons in the process.

As exciting as biomass systems seem to be these days, the concept is not without its detractors.  In July, The Forest Business Network (a web- based source for the forest product industry professional) refers to "Kitzhaber's Biomass Fable."

As noted by Kyung Song in an April 4 Seattle Times article, the technology enjoys wide political support and public subsidies at least in part because of the belief that it is carbon-neutral. That is, carbon dioxide released from burning wood is equivalent to the amount of carbon absorbed during the tree's growth.

But new, sophisticated calculations are casting doubts on the merits of biomass-produced power. Some researchers have concluded that, when it comes to carbon dioxide, biomass could be more polluting - at least in the short term - than coal, and much worse than natural gas. Burning biomass is dirtier at the outset, they argue, and recouping that higher initial release of carbon could take years or even decades of forest growth.

Proponents argue that there are broad benefits to using forest materials that get burned in slash piles anyway, and to help restore forests to natural conditions that are more resistant to wildfire - fires that annually put up tons of pollutants.

In any case, the Sisters School District is convinced of the local benfits of the biomass boiler.

Phil Chang, Benny Benson, school board member Don Hedrick, and Sisters School District Operations Director Leland Bliss have collaborated on a definitive case study of the SHS biomass boiler concept.

Related Links:
• Case Study

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