PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A Presque Isle college broke ground Monday on a 900-kilowatt biomass boiler, further enhancing its efforts to use renewable energy as both a cost-saving measure and teaching tool.

Approximately 20 people attended the 15-minute ceremony at Northern Maine Community College on Monday afternoon. The boiler will provide heat for nearly 70 percent of the total square footage of buildings on campus.

The $1 million project is being financed in part by a $500,000 federal stimulus grant from the U.S. Forest Service which will be administered by the Maine Forest Service. The new wood pellet heating plant will be located in the Mailman Trades Building, which houses classroom and lab space for many of the college’s trade and technology programs. It will replace the more than 30-year-old boiler in that building and also will be connected by underground piping to the Christie Complex, NMCC’s largest building, where most of the classrooms and campus offices are located.

Construction should be completed by April, according to college officials.

Tim Crowley, president of NMCC, told the crowd of local, state, economic development and college officials that the project will result in significant annual energy cost savings, positively affect the environment, boost the regional economy and provide new hands-on learning opportunities to students taking alternative energy courses at NMCC.

“This is a piece of a series of things we are doing to reduce our energy consumption on this campus,” Crowley said Monday. “It really began four years ago with an energy audit, and we have spent the past four years basically tightening up our facilities.”

The president said the project is expected to reduce campus heating costs significantly and replace more than 65 percent of its fuel oil consumption with a local, renewable energy source.

“The changeover to wood pellets will also serve as the equivalent in reducing carbon emissions to more than 100 cars taken off the road,” said Crowley. “Given all of these benefits, perhaps the most unique to NMCC is the opportunity this will provide our students enrolled in alternative energy programs and courses to experience this technology firsthand.”

The boiler will provide 85 percent of the heating load for 170,275 square feet of building space between the two facilities. Early projections estimate a total savings of more than $43,000 in utility costs annually and the replacement of an estimated 47,000 gallons of fuel oil with local pellets.

The biomass boiler is in addition to the recently purchased equipment housed in both the NMCC wind power technology lab and the Northern Maine Center for Excellence in Alternative Energy Training and Education, a college facility opened last spring near the campus in the Skyway Industrial Park. The equipment supports training and reflects new NMCC curriculum in alternative energy and energy conservation including wind, solar, biomass and weatherization.

Thomas Wood, senior planner with the Forest Service in Augusta, attended Monday’s event and credited NMCC for incorporating the new wood-fired boiler system into its alternative energy curriculum.

“By doing so they will be giving hands-on experience in wood-fired systems from fuel delivery to combustion to all of the related monitoring and control systems to their students,” said Wood. “It is good for the college, it is good for the students, and when the students take their skills into the marketplace, it is good for the community.”

Robert Clark, executive director of the Northern Maine Development Commission, also heralded the project. He said that Aroostook County has the assets to create a regional renewable energy economy.

“Our region is expected to see significant increases in the demand for skilled workers in the renewable energy industry,” he said. “The efforts being undertaken here at NMCC in alternative energy training and education will be critical to meet this rising demand.”

The college has invested more than $3 million over the past few years to make the campus more energy-efficient. The scope of the work completed ranges from building and lighting upgrades to mechanical renovations and the installation of insulation and building controls.

Once the construction project is finished in April, the existing Mailman Trades Building boiler room will be reused to house the new wood pellet boiler.