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  • File Photo by Grant Morris

    An example of large-scale conversion to wood heat can be seen at Mascenic High School in New Ipswich. It used to be heating by oil, now its heated with pelleted fed automotically to the boiler from a silo that holds 42 tons of pellets, enough for more than a month of heat in the school and adjoining technology center.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Gary Somero, the Facilites Director for the Mascenic Regional School District, removes a wing nut on a door that opens up to the firing chamber of the new pellet boiler.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    The silo in the rear of the school feeds pellets automatically when sensors inside indicate the hopper is running low. It can hold 42 tons of pellets.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Two fire chambers burn woods pellets in Mascenic School District's new pellet boiler.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Facilities Director Gary Somero shows how water heated by the pellet stove is distributed throughout Mascenic High School's buildings from a single pumping room.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mascenic High among buildings using wood heat

If wood heat is ever going to be a big part of New Hampshire’s energy future, a lot more places will have to mimic Mascenic High School.

That would be fine with Gary Somero, the school’s facilities director.

“It is fantastic. It is running fantastic,” Somero said about the pellet-fired boiler, which since Nov. 10 has heated the New Ipswich high school and adjacent technology center via forced hot water.

It will heat the nearby elementary school when that building is finished.

Just as importantly in this day and age, it’s running cheap.

The school used to burn almost 250 gallons of oil a day, which at the contracted price of $2.50 per gallon cost about $600 daily, he said. Now it burns about a ton of wood pellets each day at a cost of $195, a savings of roughly two-thirds.

Enthusiasm from the region’s newest large-scale wood heating system is echoed at the region’s oldest such system.

This was the third winter that New Hampshire Ball Bearings’ Hi-Tech Division in Peterborough has heated office and other peripheral space with a pair of 2 million BTU wood-pellet boilers via low-pressure steam heat.

NHBB plant service engineer Tom Robichaud has one word to describe their operation:


Wood-pellet burners require more maintenance than oil-fired ones, including monitoring emissions to make sure that not too much particulate matter (a.k.a. soot) is released, Robichaud said, but this is more than covered by the price advantage of pellets.

“It has definitely saved us quite a bit of money on fuel,” Robichaud said.

Fuel price savings were initially calculated to cover the system’s extra cost in just 4 1⁄ 2 years and if anything, he said, the rising price of oil has reduced the period for what businesses call “return on investment.”

This success has raised the interest of other companies with big buildings to heat. Among those who have contacted him for information, said Robichaud, is BAE Systems in Nashua.

As the industry prepares for its biggest regional industry conference – “Heating the Northeast with Renewable Biomass,” happening Thursday and Friday, April 14-15, at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester – the rising price of oil is one of the brightest points for biomass energy. It creates a price advantage that may help heating systems fueled by pellets and chips expand from the residential market, where they are establishing a solid niche, into the more lucrative industrial market, involving trucks pouring 20 or more tons of pellets at a time into massive silos, instead of wrapping them in 40-pound bags and selling them to homeowners.

However, commodity pricing is a shaky foundation for industry growth.

“Our biggest headache is the roller coaster of pricing of oil. When oil goes up, people call; oil goes down, people don’t call,” said Averill Cook, president of Biomass Commodities Corp. in Williamstown, Mass., which built Mascenic’s system. It has installed almost two dozen industrial-scale wood boilers over the years.

Consider the price of natural gas, which has fallen sharply and, if projections of gas production from U.S. shale formations hold up, could stay cheap for years. Competing strictly on price might just mean wood gets undercut by a different fossil fuel.

As a result, the industry likes to emphasize what it says are other advantages, including providing local jobs in the forestry industry, getting control of our fuel source and making better use of woodlands.

“There are a lot of very positive aspects about using a resource that we have in abundance,” said Jay Healy, a lifetime tree farmer and former Massachusetts agriculture commissioner who is speaking at the conference. “I can grow a lot better trees, have a lot better ability to keep my forest a working landscape, when I have good markets across the board – not only for saw timber but a lot of low-grade wood that costs me more than I can be reimbursed for cleaning out the woods. A good biomass market would be helpful,” he said.

Industrial-scale wood heat – or, even better, combined heat and power, in which waste heat generated from electricity production is used – is the key to this benefit, said Jason Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timber Owners Association.

“The pellet market is still small. Bulk delivery is what’s important. … When you move to that level, you start hitting a scale of growth, much more than a bag here and a bag there,” he said. “I think the potential is pretty massive. The market share, market size, there’s tremendous potential.”

Biomass fuel already outsells the traditional form of biomass heat, firewood – at least as far as official records. In New Hampshire, timber tax is paid on about 150,000 to 200,000 green tons of firewood logs annually (that figure doesn’t include firewood people cut for themselves).

By contrast, about 1 million green tons of chips and pellets are sold annually.

However, much of that is in the form of chips burned by a half-dozen power plants throughout New Hampshire. Heating is a minor component.

Another aspect of biomass heat is the environment. Burning trees can release a lot of pollution – the Environmental Protection Agency is updating standards for boiler emissions – but so does burning oil or coal or natural gas. The difference with trees is that the fuel can be regrown, pulling some of that pollution (particularly carbon in greenhouse gas) back out of the air.

The specifics of the process are the subject of much debate. A highly publicized study by the Manoment Center for Conservation in Massachusetts said that without care, biomass could produce a worse “carbon footprint” than fossil fuel. Many of the details are disputed, but it raises interesting questions.

Surprisingly, considering that New Hampshire is the second most-forested state in the nation (after Maine) in terms of wooded area, there are even questions about how much energy the state can produce from its trees without damaging our environment. This is a major argument for using wood for heat, or heat-and-power, rather than pure electricity production, because it is much more efficient.

You’ll get no argument on that point at Mascenic High School.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or