Oil prices on roller coaster, Maine schools shift to alternative heat

Wood chips, geothermal are popular heating sources in newly constructed Maine schools

By Nathan Marcus

Paul Caron stands in front of a geothermal heating/cooling system at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in Brunswick.
Paul Caron, Facilities Director at the Brunswick School Department, discusses the geothermal heating and cooling system at the city’s new Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, which opened in September 2011. The Brunswick school is one of a growing number in Maine that are turning away from oil to provide heat.

Tight budgets and the rising cost of oil are forcing institutions in every sector to consider how they can become more energy-efficient, and Maine schools are no exception. Many of the state’s school districts have turned to wood chip boilers, geothermal systems and other alternative heating sources in recent years to reduce energy costs.

The shift away from No. 2 heating oil allows schools to save considerable money on heating, said Norm Justice, Facilities and Transportation Director at the Gorham School Department.

Among Maine schools, Gorham has led the transition from heating oil to alternative fuels. It was the first school district in the state to utilize geothermal heating when it installed a geothermal system at Gorham Middle School in 2003.  More recently, the district installed another geothermal system at the newly constructed Great Falls Elementary School.

Utilities can comprise as much as 30 to 40 percent of a school district’s operations budget, according to Justice.  And in a state like Maine, where winters are protracted and severe, heating costs make up a considerable part of the utilities bill.

“Energy-efficient systems can allow a school to save on the bottom line of the budget,” Justice said.

The installation of geothermal and wood chip boiler heating systems in Maine schools is becoming especially common in new school construction.

Traditionally, most schools have used No. 2 fuel oil for heating.  But the use of more energy-efficient systems has picked up over the past decade.  The last 11 schools built in Maine over the past five years have used either geothermal or wood chip boilers as the primary heating method, according to data from the Maine Department of Education.

“Oil is in the backseat at the moment,” said Scott Brown, Director of School Facilities at the Maine Department of Education.  “People are aware of the challenges of oil, and geothermal and wood chip boiler systems seem to be a natural fit.”

Geothermal heating systems take advantage of the natural heat of the earth’s core to heat a building.  Since the ground holds a relatively warm and stable temperature, geothermal systems can cycle this latent heat through water pipes to warm and cool air within a building.

For this reason, geothermal systems actually allow schools to both heat their facilities in the winter, and cool them in the summer.  The possibility of full-year climate control means that geothermal systems can pay back their cost relatively quickly.

Paul Caron, Director of Facilities at the Brunswick School Department, estimates that the cost of that system will be paid back in 10 years at the city’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, which opened in September 2011.

Geothermal systems are run by sophisticated software that allow schools close control over their operation and provide data about energy use and consumption.  This data allows schools to track their energy use and tailor the system to provide maximum efficiency and savings.  The financial benefits are likely to increase further as this technology is refined, Caron said.

Wood chip boilers take the potential energy stored in wood chips or pellets to warm water and heat a building.  These systems have been popular in Maine because of easy access to a locally available resource.

Proponents of wood boiler heating point out that these systems support local industry and take advantage an abundant natural resource. As Brown puts it: “Maine is the Saudi Arabia of wood.”

The new W.G. Mallett School in Farmington, which uses a wood pellet boiler for heat, is located close to several Maine wood processing facilities.

The installation of the new boiler provides an opportunity both to save money, and to support the local economy, said Dave Leavitt, Director of Support Services in Farmington-based Regional School Unit 9.  “We spend roughly half a million dollars on heating each year,” he said. “Why not spend that locally?”

The more funds school districts can save from cheaper and more efficient heating sources, the more money there is to spend in the classroom, school facilities directors say.

“These systems allow for reinvestment in education,” said Caron.  “We always hope to achieve higher learning results.”

Nathan Marcus, of Cumberland, is a senior at Kenyon College.

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