CLINTONVILLE - An Essex County school district has become one of the few in the state to use a wood chip gasification system as a source of heating, instead of the oil-burning boilers and furnaces that are standard in the North Country.
AuSable Valley Central School District unveiled its new biomass facility to the public on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at a ceremony at the AuSable Valley Middle/High School, where one of the district's two biomass boilers is located. The other is located at the Keeseville Elementary School. Each one cost $2.5 million.
The biomass facilites will be the primary sources of heat for the schools during winter heating season and are expected to save the district thousands of dollars, according to Superintendent Paul Savage.
This new heating system burns woodchips to heat AuSable Valley Middle/High School.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
"We're looking at (saving) over $100,000 in fuel costs annually," Savage said. "That's considerable, and that's conservative. As we go forward, we'll learn more where we're at. That's something that is a definite win for our school and our community there."
Savage also said a benefit of the new facility is that it, along with the school's backup generators, can help the school transform into an emergency center during natural disasters when the power is out.
"We know in the North Country that we run into things like we did this year with the flooding, the ice jams," Savage said. "We'll run our facilities full-speed and make sure that we have our communities taken care of."
PROJECTED SAVINGS by the numbers
AuSable Middle/High School
$98,560 = Estimated fuel oil expense: 32,000 gallons per year at $3.08 per gallon
$26,690 = Estimated wood chip expense: 785 tons per year at $34 per ton
$71,780 = Anticipated savings
Keeseville Elementary School
$53,900 = Estimated fuel oil expense: 17,500 gallons per year at $3.08 per gallon
$21,944 = Estimated wood chip expense: 645.4 tons at $34 per ton
$31,956 = Anticipated savings
District-wide: Both schools together
$103,826 = Estimated annual savings
(Source - AuSable Valley School District)
Savage said the new biomass facilities were part of a $29.85 million capital project that was put to district voters and passed in 2007. Savage pointed out that the entire project was paid for with state money and didn't come out of the local school district's budget. State aid paid for 98 percent, and the other 2 percent, $1,032,697, was paid for by EXCEL state grants that are earmarked for capital projects, including ones associated with energy projects.
Assemblywomen Teresa Sayward and Janet Duprey were both at the ceremony to celebrate the facility.
"This is a fantastic project," Duprey said. "All of us recognize that we have to get away from Middle Eastern fuel and supporting them. This is a project built with state money, and people ask where their state money goes. Well, it's here. It's in the North Country."
The facility was built by CHIPTEC Wood Energy Systems, based in Williston, Vt., which also built a similar facility for the school district in Hartford, east of Glens Falls. According to Savage, there are only four school districts in the entire state that use biomass facilities to heat their schools. The Edward-Knox School District, in Russell, located south of Canton, also uses a biomass heating system.
CHIPTEC Project Manager Josh Mandell said a biomass heating system is considered clean, green and renewable. He also pointed out that wood chips will come from a local source and shouldn't be prone to the large fluctuation in price like oil from places such as the Middle East. Greg Atkins from Greg Atkins Trucking and Logging in Keeseville will be responsible for supplying the wood chips to the district.
"It's cheaper," Mandell said. "That's probably the biggest thing of all. With the unstable oil prices over the last decades, it becomes more sensible for schools to have that stability. You don't see the rise and the fall, in wood prices; you don't see that as you would in oil."
Other biomass fuel sources such as coconut shells and corn cobs can be used to generate heat.
The facility runs by a computer and doesn't need an operator. The wood chips are fed to what's called a "gasifier" by a conveyer mechanism that retrieves them from a storage area. Once in the gasifier, the wood chips are cooked in a low-oxygen environment at temperatures ranging from 1,200 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a district pamphlet. In this heat, the wood is converted to gas, which is burned in the boiler at temperatures between 575 and 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mandell said the chips gasify instantaneously as they enter the system. Wood that isn't converted to gas becomes ash. For every 100 pounds of chips burned, about 1 pound of ash is generated, according to ChipTech.
"The small amount of ash that does come from this can be used in farming, agricultural use," Mandell said.
The heat produced in the boiler is then transferred to the school's hydronic (water and steam) system. The heated water is then pumped through the school's existing heating system.
In addition to ash, the system does create some gases that it emits into the air, but Mandell says they are at low levels.
"When it's running, it may appear to look like smoke, but it's actually vapor," Mandell said. "It's condensation from hitting the air, similar to what you would see with a washer-drier vent, like that. We have very good emission rates. Our CO (carbon monoxide) levels are competitive with natural gas and oil systems. They are very low. We've never had any problems passing any EPA tests."
The amount of wood chips used by the facility depends on how much heat needs to be generated. When the facility is generating the maximum amount of heat, it burns about 3,000 pounds per hour. Mandell estimated that it would burn about 2,000 pounds per hour on the average winter day.
Although the price of wood chips fluctuates some, it generally costs about $30 per ton, Mandell said.
Because of the logging industry and the cold winters in the North Country, some people like Sayward think that similar biomass facilities should be part of the future here.
"Biomass could play a huge role in bringing jobs to the Adirondack North Country," Sayward said. "Janet and I are pushing NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) to come up with a grant program to 100 percent grant money for schools to convert to biofuel. If we can get our schools to convert to biofuel and save money and prove that it works real well, then our industries will start using it.
"It will save our schools a tremendous amount of money, especially in this time when we're all worried about how we are going to make ends meet, how we are going to get our budget and meet the tax cap and such. This will go a long way to help that as well."