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A truck full of logs makes its way down lower Main Street in Brattleboro.

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Heating locally

Windham Wood Heat Initiative signs up 15 schools and municipalities to study switching to 'advanced' wood-fired systems.

More information about Windham Wood Heat Initiative is available at www.seon.info.

BRATTLEBORO—Armed with $1.6 million in grant funding, clean-energy advocates are extolling the benefits of converting Windham County’s schools and municipal buildings to “advanced” wood heat.

So far, they’ve had a fairly receptive audience: 15 educational and governmental entities have signed agreements to have their buildings assessed for wood heat, and $75,000 has been awarded to assist a Brattleboro elementary school with tweaking its new system.

But the work is taking time, and it’s not clear how soon the interested school and town boards will be making final decisions. Those leading the Windham Wood Heat Initiative are preaching patience, saying they’re laying the groundwork for changes that could have long-term benefits for taxpayers and for the local economy.

“We hear about the local food movement – this is basically creating a local forestry movement,” said Kim Smith, an assistant planner with Windham Regional Commission.

The wood-heat program’s roots reach to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon: As part of a shutdown settlement with the state, plant owner Entergy agreed to hand over $5.2 million for clean energy development in Vermont. Half of that funding is dedicated to clean energy efforts that are “in or for the benefit of” Windham County.

The state Department of Public Service’s Clean Energy Development Fund decided to invest a significant chunk of that money – $1.6 million – into an effort to get Windham County’s schools and municipal buildings to switch from oil or propane to wood-heating systems using pellets or chips.

The state began soliciting proposals late last year to make such a program happen, and Brattleboro’s Sustainable Energy Outreach Network (SEON) landed the funding in March.

But SEON didn’t do it alone.

Partners in the Windham Wood Heat Initiative include Windham Regional Commission; Brattleboro-based BuildingGreen; Sustainable Timber Investment Exchange (STIX L3C), also of Brattleboro; and the Concord, N.H.-based Northern Forest Center.

The coalition went to work with the goal of converting 20 buildings to wood heat. “We’ve been reaching out to schools and municipalities seeking interest in participating in the program,” Smith said. “We’ve conducted a good number of site visits. At this point, we’re moving forward with assessments.”

Those assessments are not cursory. Windham Wood Heat is recommending “investment-grade thermal analyses,” which include detailed studies of what boiler system might be right for a building as well as the projected costs for such a system. Additionally, officials are examining the buildings’ overall energy efficiency.

“These analyses take time,” said Guy Payne, SEON’s executive director: “That’s been a real challenge for us.”

Wood heat at school?

Assessments so far have included Brookline’s former elementary school, a town-owned structure that now serves as a daycare facility, as well as Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry. Windham Wood Heat Initiative also is taking a look at Windham Southeast Supervisory Union’s Esteyville building.

Still in the queue for completion of wood-heat assessments are other educational facilities including Guilford Central School, Vernon Elementary, Halifax School and Dummerston School.

Windham Wood Heat also has jumped into a project in progress at Brattleboro’s Academy School, where officials already had been installing a new wood-pellet system. The initiative is investing $75,000 into that new boiler’s control system in order to maximize its efficiency.

Wood-heating systems already are in use at several Windham County schools, so it’s not a new concept in the region. And there has been a willingness to further explore the idea of converting to advanced wood-burning systems.

“There are questions about the reliability of the fuel source and the systems themselves, but the schools and municipalities have been receptive to the use of wood heat,” Smith said.

In Dummerston, where both of the school’s boilers are beyond their expected service life, “the timing is right for this type of project,” School Board Chair Amy Wall said.

“Last winter the controller failed and was replaced – an unexpected $17,000 expense,” Wall wrote in an email. “While the entire system is running much better with this new controller, the age of the boilers, their ongoing maintenance and their inefficiency is a definite concern. The WWHI opportunity is coming at just the right time and may help make replacement of the heating system at the Dummerston School a reality without unduly burdening taxpayers.”

The wood-heat initiative is promoting heating systems that are much different than the average wood stove.

The state Clean Energy Development Fund defines “advanced wood heating” as a system that features a combination of “highly efficient combustion technology” and low emissions. Also, such a system should support “healthy forest ecosystems” and should consume local wood, state officials say.

Those are all goals of the Windham Wood Heat Initiative, which also touts the economic benefits for forestry workers and wood suppliers as well as for those who sell and maintain boilers.

There is an environmental side to the wood-heat pitch, as well: Windham Wood Heat members are careful to highlight the renewability and availability of local wood.

In Windham County, “we’re 90 percent forested, and our growth rate is faster than our harvest rate,” Payne said.

An analysis of area wood supplies – completed in September by Innovative Natural Resource Solutions – shows more than 2.2 million acres of timberland spread over a seven-county area in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. More than 80 percent of that land is privately owned.

The study says 20 new educational or municipal users of wood-heating systems might consume as much as 8,000 green (undried) tons of wood annually.

But the analysis found “ample supply of low-grade wood resource” in the area. There is somewhere between 252,000 and 578,000 green tons of wood available on private land in the region currently, and those numbers are expected to grow in the next two decades.

Of course, the bottom line for many schools and towns is cost: If a system won’t save money, it may not get much support from elected officials or from voters.

Windham Wood Heat is offering technical assistance and incentives to help make the decision a little easier: For example, the initiative pays 75 percent of the cost of a wood-heat assessment, and it offers a grant covering 25 percent of a conversion project up to a maximum of $75,000.

Michael Bosworth, a business manager for Brattleboro-based Ironwood Brand, a partner in the initiative, said he believes officials have to view wood heat with a wider lens.

“These are long-term decisions,” Bosworth said. “The real impact is over 10 to 20 years.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #328 (Wednesday, October 21, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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