There’s nothing like writing a $650 check for a tank of heating oil to remind us just how expensive the stuff has gotten this winter.

And that was for oil costing $3.45 per gallon. Now the price has jumped to $3.70. Ouch.

I still was fussing when I stopped into the office of Scott Morelli, Gardiner city manager, the other morning. As I grumbled, Scott broke into a grin. “The new boiler. It’s up and running. No more heating oil here as of yesterday afternoon.”

Indeed, as of late February, Gardiner now heats its entire municipal office complex with wood pellets.

Those wood pellets come from a Maine factory, made from Maine trees cut by Maine loggers. And we’re burning them in a boiler assembled in Bethel by Maine Energy Systems.

The pellets cost about $230 per ton, which is equivalent to heating oil at $2 per gallon. And the city’s pricing is locked in for the next three years.

Gardiner’s public works garage also has switched from oil to pellets. And even as Chuck Applebee, the city’s public works director, studies how to eliminate fossil fuels at Gardiner’s sewage treatment plant, he’s already chopped heating oil use by two-thirds there.

In years past, boilers at the sewage plant burned 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of heating oil. This year, Applebee cut this to 9,000 gallons through some low-cost tweaks.

The bottom line? Gardiner will pay about $50,000 to heat its municipal buildings next winter. Had it followed a heating-oil-as-usual approach, it would have spent $125,000.

Pretty nifty savings, I’d say. Here’s how they happened:

In the summer of 2009, Applebee learned that the heating system at the public works garage was broken beyond repair.

A few weeks later, the state fire marshal condemned one of City Hall’s two furnaces. The other furnace also was 40-plus years old, and in danger of failing.

None of this was good news, to say the least.

Over the next few months, a consultant helped us study options ranging from propane to geothermal to heating oil. After factoring in projected fuel costs over a 10- or 20-year period, wood pellets emerged as the frugal solution.

And so we took the plunge, buying a $70,000 pellet system for the public works garage and, this year, a $120,000 pellet system for City Hall.

That’s a lot of money, of course, far more than a couple heating oil boilers would have cost. A federal grant, however, paid half the cost of the pellet system at City Hall, cutting the city’s share to $60,000, just $20,000 more than a new oil boiler.

At both buildings, the day-to-day savings are impressive. At City Hall, for example, we’ll save $10,000 to $12,000 yearly buying pellets instead of heating oil. This means the new system will pay for itself in two years.

What about natural gas? Should we have waited to see if ever becomes available? Well, Applebee believes that wood pellets may prove cheaper in the long run than natural gas. And I think he’s right.

Alas, Gardiner’s good news could be better: While other school systems vie for state and federal grants to improve energy efficiency, the directors of our local school system, SAD 11, keep paying ever-more-outrageous energy bills — and hoping that local residents won’t notice.

(Disclosure: My wife, Deborah Holmes, is a SAD 11 director. She thinks the school system can and should do more to rein in energy costs.)

Last winter, Gardiner Area High School chugged through 52,000 gallons of heating oil. The middle school used 22,000 gallons; the district’s elementary schools, another 44,000 gallons.

All this oil and propane will cost the school system $400,000 or more next year. And the school board just keeps on paying.

The Saudis say thanks. As for me, I’ll take City Hall’s approach to the challenge of high energy costs.

Kendall Holmes, an at-large member of the Gardiner City Council, has edited a variety of web sites and magazines, and he founded The Old House Web, a leading home-improvement advice site. He’s also a former Washington correspondent for the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Portland Press Herald.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.