A biomass boiler could have been a good fit for the University of Maine at Farmington, if it was the only organization affected by the energy decision, according to UMF President Kathryn Foster.
However, the university was not making a decision between wood pellets and natural gas in a bubble, but making a choice that would affect a complex group of stakeholders, each with different environmental and economic values, Foster said Monday night as part of a series of campus talks for environmental week.
The university’s eventual decision to negotiate with Summit Natural Gas in hopes of bringing gas to campus by the fall of 2015 was the deciding factor on whether any residents and businesses in Farmington could be serviced with a natural gas pipeline.
Summit told community leaders in the past that they needed large customers to justify building pipeline out into the community; so if the university didn’t become a customer, no one could.
“In a vacuum, a biomass boiler remains a wonderful thing to do; but we’re not in a vacuum,” Foster said.
Other panelists at the talk, “UMF’s Energy Future — Natural Gas?” said natural gas, which has been known to halve energy bills, would be a solution to the high cost of energy in western Maine.
Town Manager Richard Davis said he backs natural gas because it lowers emissions compared to oil and because it could help the town attract businesses by offering lower utility costs.
Sen. Tom Saviello, who represents Franklin County in the Legislature, said he has a responsibility to those who are struggling to heat their homes, and that he first entered talks with Summit about coming to Farmington as a way to provide an alternate, lower-cost fuel.
“From my perspective, I have to worry about people, making sure they’re warm,” he said.
Saviello had been a vocal critic of UMF during the bid process because it was not awarded in the spring, as he had expected.
“There was common acknowledgment that the process took longer than expected, and there was concern,” Foster said.
She said that because of the way the university did the public bid process, it was limited legally in discussing its process. Foster said university leadership regrets the way the process was handled, because she said transparency is one of her priorities, yet she was prevented by law from being open about the process.
She said if university officials could do it over, they would not have had a long bid process and possibly held public forums or gathered more input in other ways.
“I don’t think we’ll ever do this again,” she said.
The UMF process started in December 2012, when the University of Maine System released a request for proposals for energy bids. UMF received six proposals, which were considered by an internal committee.
In March 2013 they started reviewing proposals, and three were selected for campus visits: Self-Gen, which pitched a central plan with co-generation; Summit Natural Gas; and Trane, which proposed a biomass plant with fuel oil as a backup.
Train’s proposal was first considered the top proposal by UMF that spring. In May and June, the University of Maine System started reviewing all those proposals, and multiple engineering companies evaluated their feasibility.
After those evaluations, the university system approved UMF’s negotiation with Summit for the natural gas and with Trane for building upgrades in the natural gas conversion.
Panelist Drew Barton, professor of biology and co-coordinator of the Sustainable Campus Coalition, said he supported a biomass boiler because it has a lower environmental impact than natural gas, which is a fossil fuel; and it runs on wood pellets, which are a local product.
Barton said he thought biomass would be best for UMF and its students, outweighing the potential for residential buildout, because it was a chance to teach students about sustainability through the school’s example.
“What an incredible teaching opportunity that would provide for our students to learn about biomass energy, about sustainable forestry, about economics, and to actually connect the dots from tree to truck to biomass to recharging their computer. That was a compelling argument to me,” he said.
He also said he thought it was the ethical choice to pick something that fought climate change by reducing carbon emissions.
“How a college operates and the decisions we make teach a students as powerfully as what goes on in the classroom.”
Foster said the university has overlapping responsibility to the community, their students, alumni, the board of directors and the university system. Leadership also was seeking to uphold values such as education, responsibility to the region, fiscal sustainability and environmental sustainability.
“The kick here is that the values are not always compatible,” she said. “What maximizes, for example, environmental sustainability, might not in the immediate case, maximize financial sustainability; and visa versa.”
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 firstname.lastname@example.org