Exploring Alternative Energy Choices

(from Maine Townsman, June 2008)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

The idea of heating a school building with wood seemed kind of kooky just a decade ago. At least it did to some members of a fact-finding group in SAD 52 that explored switching to a wood-chip boiler at the newly expanded Leavitt Area High School in Turner, which opened in 1999.

“I remember thinking ‘this isn’t going to work, this is a stupid idea’ ... I thought it was going to be a maintenance headache,” said Gene Jordan, a maintenance worker and member of the fact-finding group. SAD 52 made the switch to a wood-chip boiler and is happy it did, but Jordan’s initial skepticism may explain why it is still the only wood heated school building in Maine.

But times are changing. New schools in Dexter and Thorndike will be heated with wood. Wind and geothermal projects are popping up with increasing frequency. And energy conservation, once a laudable goal, is viewed by many as a minimum first step.

“I can’t put my finger on any issue — except paving roads — that everyone’s in agreement. You don’t hear anyone saying ‘we shouldn’t reduce our use of energy,’” said Saco City Councilor Eric Cote, a prime mover behind Saco’s embrace of wind power and geothermal.

Skepticism, it seems, is giving way to a can-do spirit of trial and error. Saco, for example, bought two wind turbines – a 1.8-megawatt unit at the Public Works Garage and a 50-megawatt unit at a new Transportation Center on Saco Island - without having yet conducted a single wind study.

“Why spend all that money for a wind study?” asks Cote. “If you think you have a good site, buy a little turbine. If it doesn’t work out, sell it.”

With petroleum prices hitting all-time highs, the Maine Townsman set out to explore the energy options facing Maine municipalities today and how experts weigh their costs and benefits. First, the Townsman sought perspective from some old pros who lived through earlier eras of  alternative energy enthusiasm.

“We’re in a crisis, but it’s a crisis that should be managed rationally, not hurry up and do something foolish and regret it,” says John Joseph, director of the State Energy Office in 1979 and 1980.   “You can’t look at just energy conservation or it will backfire,” he said. It was a mistake, for example, to have blocked off windows, which were viewed narrowly as only heat wasters, without considering that windows let in natural light, which can reduce interior lighting and provides a better environment, he said.  Co-generation biomass plants were a good idea that went bad when they were decoupled from generating heat and became electricity generators only, reducing their cost-effectiveness, he said.  “In a crisis, it’s easy to do the right thing wrong,” he said.

Joseph’s advice to municipalities is to pursue conservation, first. “Reduce the load, then figure out best where to develop a source of supply, which may be smaller than you needed before,” said Joseph, now developing automated energy audit software for the Maine State Housing Authority.

A patient determination is needed, he said.

“You need to have a real commitment to understanding and long-term thinking, equivalent to building roads, to do it right,” he said “First you have to have the level of knowledge and commitment then collaboration. We’re no where near that.”

A similar note of prudence is sounded by Richard Hill, the former head of the engineering department at the University of Maine and a veteran policy advisor. Before deciding whether to switch to an alternative energy source, a building should be evaluated for how it uses energy, he said. “The thing we don’t do, but should do, is really take a look at where energy is going. You ought to go out for a week or so and read the meter every couple of hours,” he said. “How much electricity use is stand by and how much is discretionary?” It is particularly important because the purpose of the building may have changed, rendering the original heating or cooling system inappropriate to current use, he said. “I don’t think there’s a single municipal building that’s being used for what it was designed for. Schools as well,” Hill said. Often, ventilation systems can be modified so air is recirculated within the building before it is exhausted, he said. And the ventilation systems for sewage treatment plants may be larger than necessary if the human environment can be glassed in and ventilated separately, he said. “I’m particularly concerned in energy waste about ventilation systems,” he said.

Hill is skeptical of small scale wind power projects because he believes the savings are not weighed against the attendant “redundant safety system” costs to wheel power back onto the grid. “For small machines, it gets extremely expensive. You should borrow or rent an anemometer for at least a year,” he said. “A lot of these things never get documented. Is anyone reading the meter.”

Angus King, Maine’s former governor and a hydro-power developer before that, believes Maine is in a “slow-motion” catastrophe.

“Many reasonable people” believe oil prices will go to $300 a barrel within 8 to 10 years, which equates with $10 a gallon heating oil, he said. “That leaves you with an unaffordable situation. If you buy 1,000 gallons of oil and cut energy use by 20 percent, you’ll still be paying $8,000,” he said.

“Incremental actions, like conservation, while important, aren’t going to solve the problem. As Thomas Friedman says, we’re talking about windows while China is talking of building whole new cities. It’s a big worldwide problem. The sooner you make investment, quicker the payback.”

King notes electricity accounts for just 10 percent of home energy usage compared to 40 percent for heating and 50 percent for automobile usage.

“If you’re talking about saving energy you can’t focus exclusively on electricity,” he said.

“It’s important ... but if you’re a municipality you have to you have to look at heating also.”

Electricity savings

  Ever since 2003, the Maine Public Utilities Commission has awarded rebates for electric efficiency upgrades through its Efficiency Maine program. The money comes from a surcharge on electric bills that annually generates $13 million-plus, of which $2.7 million is earmarked to schools, municipalities, businesses and non-profit organizations. “It’s not competitive, there are plenty of funds,” said David Kyle, business program manager for Efficiency Maine. In new construction, Efficiency Maine buys down the cost differential between traditional appliances and super-efficient ones, so there is no risk. In retrofits, Efficency Maine pays for 35 percent of the total materials and labor cost. Since 2003, some 83 communities have received incentive payments totalling $588,000, he said. The majority of dollars spent and kilowatt-hours saved are with water and wastewater facilities and schools, according to Kyle. Yarmouth, Gorham, Bangor, and Aroostook County have done a lot of work, he said.

Kyle said municipalities’ low participation in Efficiency Maine is “rapidly changing” but his presentations at MMA conferences have yet to draw much response.  “I’ve stood up and said as flashy as I can, ‘I have $2.7 million and I am highly motivated to give to you.’ It gets a chuckle, but [municipalities] gotta pay for [their] part. In the meantime, they’re laying off facility and maintenance staff.”

Kyle attributes municipal reluctance to “intense downward pressure on the budget” and a budget process that shies away from looking at “life cycle savings” in favor of single year savings.

“Not many of these pay off in one year,” Kyle said. “But many pay off in two or three years.”

A list of recommended efficiency upgrades for the Town of Yarmouth shows how one town has prioritized its energy options. The Yarmouth Energy Savers Committee has been meeting since last November to reduce energy usage, costs and carbon footprint. The committee commissioned an audit of eight town facilities through Efficiency Maine in March and ranked its recommended improvements in three categories: immediate implementation, implementation upon burnout of existing equipment, and longer term options. Initially, the committee recommends spending $43,000 on upgraded lighting, lighting controls, vending machine controls, recommissioning the HVAC system at town hall, air quality controls at town hall, and setback, programmable thermostats. Collectively, that investment would save about $15,736 a year and would be paid back within three years. Furthermore, the investment would generate a $10,500 rebate from Efficiency Maine that the committee recommends be used as seed money for other improvements. Later improvements would include: replacement of motors with higher efficiency ones; replacement of hotwater heaters with tankless on-demand heaters; installation of a daylight dimming system along south facing windows at the town hall and library. Longer term projects include: an automated operations and maintenance system; hiring staff to better maintain equipment; conducting an infrared survey to identify heat loss areas; and replacing HVAC equipment with split-system, high efficiency heat pumps.

Nat Tupper, town manager in Yarmouth, said his town councilors are willing to adopt efficiency upgrades and green technologies as long as long as it coincides with the end of the useful life of equipment and as long as the payback is within three to seven years.

“If you start stretching out the payback beyond that it gets harder to sell,” he said. “I haven’t found elected officials are motivated much beyond energy improvements for the purposes of saving costs.”

Since SAD 52 installed its wood-chip boiler, two more schools have taken the plunge.  A new school in Thorndike opens this fall and a new school in Dexter opens in fall of 2010.  Meanwhile, the wood-chip boiler at Leavitt Area High School has received a steady flow of visitors. “I get called once or twice a month, it’s kind of a new thing,” said Assistant Superintendent Deb Holland. “I should charge [an admission] ticket,” she jokes.
       The Messersmith system at Leavitt cost an estimated $273,000 to install and requires more space than the traditional oil-fired boiler.  In addition to the boiler itself, there’s a chip storage bin, a stack,  and a mechanical feed system of augers, belts and meters.  The stack emissions are somewhat cleaner than an oil furnace with less carbon dioxide and SO 2, about the same nitrogen oxides, and more carbon and particulate matter. Maintenance worker Jordan estimates the wood-chip boiler requires an additional half to one hour of daily maintenance, which he termed “not too awfully bad,” but otherwise is relatively problem free.

An analysis of the wood-chip boiler commissioned by Maine Department of Education compared the operating cost with a traditional oil-fired boiler for a seven-year period. The woodchip boiler cost an added $8,000 in maintenance each year, but saved $30,600 in fuel costs each year, for overall savings of $22,600. The savings are greater today since oil has climbed well above the $2.20 per gallon price on which calculations were made.

“The woodchip fuel heating system installed at Leavitt proved to be a solid financial investment,” study author Richard Doughty concluded. Furthermore, “... I believe woodchip systems similar to the Leavitt installation represent a viable and practical alternative for heating many of Maine’s schools.”

Wood heat may get another boost from Maine’s Department of Conservation, which has commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of converting the state’s 1,000 boilers located in DOT garages, fire control buildings, and office buildings.  Study director Lloyd Irland said Maine should be embarrassed that so few building are heated with wood.

“All the talk over the past 20 years: energy, energy, energy,” he said mockingly.  “it’s a scandal that we have to go to Vermont to get advice. Think of how much money we would have saved taxpayers if we had started earlier.”

By comparison, 31 schools in Vermont are heated with wood, with nearly a dozen more soon to convert. An estimated 10 percent of Vermont students go to wood-heated schools.

“Maine is just starting to get into more biomass,” said Barry Bernstein of Better World Energy in Vermont, the leading New England supplier of wood-chip boilers to schools.

Bernstein said a wood-chip boiler represents a higher upfront capital cost than a traditional oil furnace because it requires woodchip storage and a mechanical system for feeding chips and he also acknowledges a small additional maintenance cost. “There is added maintenance cost, but it’s really insignificant when you take in the savings in fuel costs.” The price of woodchips is one quarter the cost of oil and half the cost of natural gas. The threshold for conversion used to be a 50,000 square foot building or 30,000 gallons of oil a year, “but that’s coming down,”


Wind power may not be practical for many building sites. By Cote’s rough calculation, the small turbine at the Public Works Garage has earned its keep. It cost $8,000 to erect and it’s saving $750 a year in electricity, which Cote says is a reasonably quick payback, while conceding it represents a tiny fraction of the electricity needed at the garage.  The city has also bought a larger turbine at a windier site on Saco Island. The 50 megawatt unit cost $200,000 and was advertised to produce 90,000 kilowatt hours a year, or potentially $14,5000 in savings. “It’s not doing that right now,” Cote conceded. “We’re still working through some things. Some [sites] work out, some don’t. Six months out, we’ll know if it’s a good idea or a dumb idea.” Kittery is following Saco’s lead with a turbine at its transfer station and a half dozen energy-efficient-minded communities share information with Saco, Cote said.


Geothermal heating is an exotic-sounding energy source that is quietly attracting a following. Oversimplifying, the warmth of ground water extracted from a well field or single bore hole at depths ranging from 300 to 1,600 feet provides enough embodied heat (50 to 60 degrees) that it can be efficiently boosted by a heat pump to provide space heating. Projects completed or under construction include: York County Courthouse in Alfred, Gorham Middle School, Saco Transportation Center, Rockport Elementary School, Durham Elementary School, Kennebec Sanitary District, the U.S. Customs House in Portland and Abromson Center at University of Southern Maine.  Geothermal systems run on electricity and require back up when the power goes out. They also do not provide domestic hotwater.

The Gorham Middle School project compared favorably with a conventionally-heated Gorham High School, which is approximately the same size, according to an analysis of three years of operation commissioned by Maine’s Department of Education. The analysis by Richard Doughty concluded that the geothermal-heated building cost $38,000 less to heat and cool each year than Gorham High School and the savings are even greater if compared to average existing schools The biggest savings came during the air-conditioning season. But geothermal systems are significantly more expensive than traditional heating and cooling systems. The Gorham Middle School system cost $1.9 million, or about $544,000 more than a conventional system. The payback of that additional investment takes about 12 years allowing for the energy savings over an average existing school, according to Doughty.

Doughty concludes that investing in geothermal is not as cost effective as investing in other conventional high efficiency systems.

“The bulk of the energy cost savings achieved by the geothermal heat pump design could be more economically obtained through the optimization of traditional designs,” he wrote.

 “They had a heating system that was going to fail anytime. It was 70 years old.” The geothermal system cost $1.6 million, which was $160,000 more than a conventional system combined with an upgrade.  “We estimated savings at $25,000 a year in operating costs and its going to be closer to $50,000 to $60,000,” said Doug Martin, president of W.H. Demmons.

Some have energy projects that – while providing modest savings – are serving as demonstrations. Kennebunk Middle School installed a demonstration array of 33 photovoltaic panels. It cost $47,000 with $37,000 coming from Efficiency Maine. Operations manager Thomas Maines said the system saves about $1,200 of an annual electric bill of about $80,000 a year. “It’s not big enough to be cost effective. The [array] needs to be a lot bigger,” he said. The purpose is primarily educational, he said. The kilowatt hours saved and carbon footprint impact are posted on the school’s website, he said.

Last year, Pemetic School in Southwest Harbor installed 12 photovoltaic panels for $16,000 , which should produce about nine kilowatt hours of electricity daily and at least $700 savings annually.

“Is it a big savings? Not on a $52,000 electric bill, but it’s a start,” School Committee member Skip Strong told the Mount Desert Islander. More important, he said, the project will demonstrate to students and the community that generating electricity from the sun is viable and economically feasible.