College's biomass plant expected to save millions
This past fall, the construction of a biomass plant began here on the Hill. Patricia Murphy, Director of Physical Plant Department, spoke about the plant’s progress. “One of the first things we had to do was clear all of the utilities off the site; water, sewer, and electrical lines. We relocated all of these. [The workers] are currently digging the foundation, which is about thirty feet deep,” Murphy said.
There are three major incentives behind the project. “We don’t like being dependent on foreign oil, and that is a real concern for us with oil prices going up,” Murphy said. “Sometimes there are supply issues, and since there’s no natural gas around here, it’s hard to be dependent on one source. When we first started looking at wood, we were looking [at it] as a secondary source,” she said. The construction of a biomass plant addressed these concerns and came with added benefits. “We realized there are some real potential positive environmental impacts that we could implement by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, [and] this could be a huge money saving operation,” Murphy said.
The College projects that the new plant could save over a million dollars a year. Initial saving will go towards the cost of the plant’s construction, estimated at around eleven million dollars. Murphy explained that this cost should take even less than eleven years to pay off, however, because gas prices “are going way up. When we were looking at this project a few years ago, our oil was in the price of seventy to eighty dollars a barrel, each barrel yielding about forty-two gallons of oil.” Today, however, oil prices have risen to up to one hundred and twenty four dollars a barrel, which adds up to more than a million dollars a year.
Wood prices remain consistent, averaging about forty to forty-five dollars a ton. “If you figure we’re going to get rid of most of this oil and replace it with ninety percent wood, we can expect to pay around one million dollars a year at most,” Murphy said. “Had we been using oil, we would have been spending two million a year.”
Essentially, the more oil costs, the more the College will save by implementing the use of wood instead of oil. Because oil costs are invariably rising, the biomass plant will continue to benefit the College’s wallet and carbon footprint. To put this idea in perspective, imagine an energy efficient car: one would save the most money when gas prices are the highest. This same concept applies to the new plant.
As far as fuel for the biomass plant goes, “we don’t know what the wood supply is going to be yet,” Murphy explained. “We’re looking for waste; we’re not going to cut down virgin trees. We’re seeking things that are often left out in the forest; quite often what you see left on the forest floor are things like bark and limbs and tree tops; things that can’t really be used for other mill activities. We’ve designed our plant to take those types of fuels. If we get something that is kind of odd, the conveyor will spit it out and then resize it and then it goes back in,” Murphy said.
Murphy outlined the template required to receive LEED certification. “We must demonstrate certain things, make calculations, take pictures during construction, use a good design, take care of water, try to find materials that are recyclable, and use low volatile organic compounds. Essentially, both design and construction activity has to be monitored. Somebody grades you, [then] they come back and tell you if you’ve met the criteria,” Murphy said.
Other buildings on campus are already LEED certified, such as the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center, the Diamond building, the bookstore, Pulver, Perkins-Wilson and Pierce. In addition, the College recently submitted work on Goddard-Hodgkins for LEED certification. In the future, the College hopes to receive certification on Drummond and Piper as well.
The biomass plant is part of the College’s vision to become carbon neutral by 2015. “The heating plant is one of our largest sources of emissions. In order to be carbon neutral, we have to tackle [the issue of the heating plant]; if we can get rid of the majority of [the waste emitted by the plant], which we will do with biomass, that [will bring] our emissions way down,” said Murphy.