June 23, 2018
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Greenville voters to weigh in on biomass boiler proposal

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

GREENVILLE, Maine — With a referendum vote for $2.5 million worth of energy improvements to the Greenville School campus about two weeks away, some local residents worry there are still too many unknowns.

The project includes $1.5 million for the conversion of the oil-fired steam boilers in the Oakes building, which houses the middle and high schools, to a biomass forced-hot-water boiler, as well as $40,000 for asbestos removal. The need for energy improvements to the school campus has been discussed for more than 10 years.

The school committee “really [has] worked hard to come up with something that’s going to help the community, and it’s going to be a good thing for Maine and for our students,” Superintendent Beth Lorigan told residents Thursday.

Residents on Thursday received the breakdown of the anticipated costs, which some believed was long overdue.

“The school board and the building committee have spent a tremendous amount of time and have really investigated and thought about this,” resident Ralph Johnson acknowledged. “What bothers me is a week ago, they didn’t know one number, not one number; there are no alternatives that have been looked at. There’s just so many parts of this that could lead down to a canyon where the finances don’t work anymore.”

A few years ago, the Greenville School Committee applied for and was awarded a federal stimulus grant but did not feel ready to proceed, so it rejected the money. In 2010, the committee reapplied and was awarded a $750,000 federal grant to help pay for the biomass plant. To avoid losing the grant, a groundbreaking was held last month for the project.

Residents approved a $2 million bond last year for the improvements. Since some changes have been made in the scope of the project, amendments are needed to last year’s vote. During a June 21 referendum, residents will be asked to allow the construction of an accessory building to house the boiler and provide fuel storage. They will also be asked to allow the project to serve the gymnasium as well as the Oakes building and to authorize acceptance of the $750,000 grant.

The proposed project, to be funded over 15 years, includes an upgrade of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and the installation of a 2.15 million Btu-load biomass plant to serve the Oakes building and the gymnasium. The biomass plant would have an expected life span of 30 years.

The project does not include the Nickerson Elementary School because school officials plan to ask residents in November to close it and consolidate the students into the Oakes building.

School officials have been working with engineer Mark Power of TRANE, a worldwide heating, ventilation and air conditioning company, one of six companies interviewed by the committee for the project. Power told Greenville residents Thursday that the total cost of the capital improvements, including the biomass plant, will not exceed $2,526,750. He said quotes would be sought from subcontractors within the next three weeks. Should the quotes come in higher than anticipated and it appears the project would exceed the $2.5 million, the school committee would be told before the referendum vote, he said.

Asked Thursday what the school committee would do if voters rejected the amendments, Lorigan said the committee would likely just do the heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements.

Power said the conversion from steam to hot water is expected to provide $19,500 in savings the first year. The annual savings after is expected to be nearly $98,000, which is based on an estimated cost of $55 a ton for wood chips. Wood chips are about 25 percent the cost of fuel oil, he noted.

“The bottom line is that with the advantage offered by the fuel switch to chips, you can pay for your capital improvements, and you can pay for your wood biomass project without additional tax dollars” over the 15-year loan period, Power said.

In comparison, Power said if the town did just the heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements with no federal money and no biomass plan, $727,647 would be funded from property taxes over a 15-year period.

Some residents were not easily swayed by the numbers; others were concerned about the price, source and moisture content of the chips, which could affect the energy output.

Power said TRANE does not guarantee tons of chips burned, but it does guarantee thermal energy. “We guarantee you will use X therms of energy in a given year and no more,” he said.

Lorigan said she would contact wood chip suppliers before the referendum vote and find out what they charge and what the moisture content of their chips is.

Resident John Cobb, a building committee member who helped study the campus’s needs over the years, said he is all for making renovations to the Oakes building but is opposed to the biomass plant.

“I know we have other options that have not been fully explored,” he said. “We’re being pushed by the deadline of the federal grant program, and we’re allowing that process to railroad us down this path.”

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