SKOWHEGAN — The school board last week voted to go ahead with a wood-pellet boiler system for the high school and Bloomfield Elementary School, despite the possibility that a natural gas pipeline might someday serve the schools.

If the proposed Kennebec Valley Gas Co. pipeline does come to the area, it could be used to augment the pellet system, school Superintendent Brent Colbry said.

“We’re already well into that — we’ve been doing this for two years,” Colbry said of the pellet, or biomass, boiler system. “We’re at the phase where the engineering is being done, the financing bids are due in at anytime now.”

State education officials and the local school board already have approved a borrowing package of up to about $2 million, at no interest, for a wood pellet boiler system.

Colbry said he spoke to Kennebec Valley Gas principal Rich Silkman and they agreed the pellet project should continue toward completion by November of this year. He said the best case scenario for a gas line to come up U.S. Route 2 to the schools would not be until late 2014 or early 2015.

“This would be a spur line up here — the main line would not come by here,” Colbry said.

Even with wood pellets, Colbry said, the schools would still burn some oil in the spring and in the fall. That oil use could be converted to gas, but several customers — not just the schools — would be needed to bring the gas line spur to the area.

“If we went strictly with natural gas and no wood pellets, we would have to replace the high school and the Bloomfield boilers — with wood pellets we would avoid all that,” Colbry said. “If we abandon the pellet project and waited for gas, we won’t avoid borrowing money. We would have to replace the boilers we have in order to burn the natural gas.”

The two 10-year-old boilers at the new middle school also could be used in a loop to feed either the oil as back up during the spring and fall or the natural gas, if it comes to the area, he said.

Colbry said the district has to start the wood pellet project soon or lose the money earmarked for the project.

He using wood pellets would save the district $60,000 to $70,000 the first year alone.

Silkman said Friday when he realized that borrowing and engineering on the wood-pellet system for the schools was already under way, he told Colbry the best plan would be to proceed as planned.

“Based on that, I said if they’ve already got the money in hand and they don’t have to pay for it, then that’s probably a pretty good option to follow,” Silkman said. “And then natural gas might be able to displace the oil that they would be otherwise burning, even with the pellet facility.”

Silkman said the main pipeline would run from Augusta, through Sidney into downtown Oakland. From there, the line would travel into Fairfield Center and down state Route 139 into Norridgewock, where it would cross the Kennebec River to Madison.

There are proposed spur lines that would feed Huhtamaki Packaging in Fairfield, MaineGeneral Medical Center in Waterville, Sappi Fine Paper and downtown Skowhegan, among other locations, if tax increment financing agreements are approved in each town.

Skowhegan voters are set to vote on the proposed tax breaks at a special town meeting Feb. 14.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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