OAKLAND — When Regional School Unit 18 voters approved a multimillion dollar wood chip-burning boiler in 2011, it was with the promise that the project would reduce energy costs at three area schools.

Early numbers show the first year of savings has slightly exceeded the minimum savings guarantee from the contractor.

The $3.7 million biomass boiler was completed in May 2012. Over the first 12 months, it saved the district $135,539, just slightly more than the $132,683 that was guaranteed by contractor Honeywell.

The 2,472-square-foot biomass plant supplies hot water heat to Messalonskee High School, Messalonskee Middle School, and Williams Elementary School, all in Oakland. The school district also includes China, Sidney, Belgrade and Rome, and students from those towns to go the middle and high shools.

Superintendent Gary Smith said it was good news as the cash-strapped district looks forward to the next budget cycle.

“These savings have helped us through these tough times and they will continue to help us put the most dollars we can into the classroom,” Smith said.

Honeywell offers energy improvement projects for schools, municipalities, and privately owned buildings through guaranteed performance improvement projects, in which a certain level of savings is guaranteed.

At the current rate, the amount saved will be about $2 million over the next 15 years, the period guaranteed by Honeywell. About $490,000 in additional cost savings are projected in reduced operational costs.

Savings realized in the future will depend, in part, on changes in the prices of wood chips and oil.

Smith said the system will for itself in four or five years, because of factors not included in Honeywell’s energy savings report, such as the cost of replacing the old heating systems in the high school and the elementary school, both of which would have needed to be replaced soon anyway.

“To replace the high school boiler alone would have been a $300,000 to $500,000 project,” he said.

Of the boiler’s $3.7 million upfront costs, $500,000 was paid for with a federal grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, while $3 million was borrowed, at no interest, with a 15-year federal construction bond.

Smith said that, because of the way the loan is structured, the school will only have to pay back $2.7 million of the $3 million borrowed.

Instead of paying $213,000 in fuel oil to heat the three schools, the district spent about $14,000 on electricity and about $63,000 on wood chips, which resulted in the net savings of $135,539.

Smith said the project was not only cost effective, but good for the environment and the region’s economy.

Roughly 60,000 fewer gallons of oil will be used in the district each year and the money spent on wood chips stays in the local economy, rather than going elsewhere.

“When you buy fuel oil in the state of Maine, 10 percent of that money stays in the state and 90 percent is gone as soon as you write the check,” Smith said. “When you buy the same amount of woodchips, 100 percent of that money stays in central Maine, and it circulates, creating jobs for central Mainers.”

Smith said the new heating system has had no service interruptions, and that the schools have been as warm this year as they were the previous year.

He said the school is using more woodchips, and spending more time on maintenance, than it had originally projected, but predicted that improvements will come as the staff gains experience with the new system.

“I think that’s something we’re still learning about,” he said.

About half of the energy is used to heat the high school, while one third is used to heat the middle school and the remainder goes to the elementary school. The old heating systems are still in place, Smith said, which would allow the oil-burning boilers at either the high school or the middle school to heat all three buildings in the case of an emergency.

Smith said that, over 30 years, the projected life of the boiler, the project will save the district almost $5 million, and if it lasts 40 years, the savings could approach $10 million.

The energy savings report from Honeywell also included savings from other projects in the district. A $1 million series of upgrades in China Primary School and China Middle School saved $62,000 over four years, while a $2 million series of upgrades at Belgrade Central School and James H. Bean elementary school in Sidney, as well as the three Oakland schools, have saved $45,000 over one year.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]