OAKLAND — The Town Council heard two presentations Tuesday, one about a proposal to construct a central woodchip biomass plant to heat three Regional School Unit 18 schools and another about Central Maine Power’s installation of “smart meters” this fall

School Superintendent Gary Smith said a referendum on the proposed $3.6 million central woodchip biomass plant will go before voters in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney on Sept. 6.

He said the project, which would not increase costs to taxpayers, would be partially funded with a $500,000 Maine Forestry Service grant.

A low-interest bond, to be paid back over 15 years, would pay for the rest.

“We’ve struggled with school budgets the last couple of years,” he said. “I’d like to work on trying to find money for teachers and for service to children than figure out how to pay for oil at $5 a gallon.”

Messalonskee High School’s boiler is 43 years old and Williams Elementary School’s is 27.

Smith said a central woodchip biomass plant would be the primary heating source for these schools, as well as Messalonskee Middle School. The aging boilers, as well as the boiler at the middle school, would be used for backup sources.

Jim Lucy of Honeywell said biomass, an energy source made from wood chips, is a much cheaper alternative to oil. It’s also renewable, sustainable and can be purchased locally.

Lucy said the woodchip plant, which would be adjacent to the bus garage in Oakland, would reduce heating costs by 75 percent in the three district schools.

Citing statistics from the Maine Forestry Service, Lucy said every $1 spent in the wood industry circulates five times in local communities and that 85 cents of every $1 spent on oil leaves the state.

Lucy and Smith said the technology is not new. Regional School Unit 3, based in Unity, has a wood chip boiler at its new Mount View complex, as do other districts.

Councilor Dana Wrigley said he found some of the statistics suspect and misleading.

“It’s all good stuff,” he said. “But some things that have been said are quite a stretch.”

Lucy said the district would be “switching the price of one fuel to another” and that historically oil and gas have cost much more than wood.

Kay Rand of Bernstein Shur Government Solutions made the “smart meter” presentation on behalf of Central Maine Power. Smart Meters use electronic technology to measure electricity use and they store hourly information so customers can obtain specific information about the company’s website.

Armed with knowledge, Rand said customers can reduce their use of electricity during peak hours, and therefore reduce their bills. She also said the technology verifies when power is back on in individual homes after an outage.

“Now you won’t get calls at 3 in the morning asking if your power has been restored,” she said.

Rand equated the signals emitted by the low-power radio transmitter with those from a WiFi router or baby monitor.

She said the meters are “very safe” and noted the Maine Public Utilities Commission has said that customers who do not want “smart meters” will have 30 days from the time they are notified of an upcoming installation to select one of two other options.

Customers who choose to have a Smart Meter installed with the transmitter turned off will be assessed a one-time fee of $20 and a monthly charge of $10.50. Those who want to keep their electro-mechanical meter will be charged a one-time fee of $40 and a monthly charge of $12.

The fees, she said, will cover Central Maine Power’s costs of maintaining two redundant metering technologies to support the options.

Rand said Central Maine Power anticipates the savings it will realize from Smart Meters would finance the project and that no costs would be passed on to customers.

She said the meters should be completely installed throughout Central Maine Power’s service territory by early 2012.

Beth Staples — 861-9252

[email protected]

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