SKOWHEGAN – How do you keep 1,500 students warm all winter and still save money?

The answer is to install a modern biomass boiler that will heat three district schools using locally produced wood pellets.

“It’s unique in that it’s serving multiple schools, it has a local wood source and, of course, the cost savings,” School Administrative District 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said. “We dug trenches last summer from the high school to Bloomfield Elementary and then over to the middle school for insulated pipes. They’re all connected underneath.”

The equipment for the district’s $1.7 million wood pellet boiler system arrived in a snowstorm the day after Christmas. The $500,000 Hurst pellet boiler is in the basement of Skowhegan Area High School. It is fed with an auger from a 42-ton silo by the football field.

The system runs off of a 3,500-gallon hot water tank, warmed by the wood pellets and circulated in a loop to every room in all three schools, Colbry said.

The school board approved the project in January 2012. State education officials and the local school board already had approved a borrowing package of up to about $2 million, at low interest, for a wood pellet boiler system.

Colbry said Messalonskee High School and two other schools in Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 did something similar with a boiler that burns wood chips. Schools in North Anson-based SAD 74 use pellet boilers, as do schools in Waterville, Farmington, Unity, Philips and Dexter. SAD 59′s Madison Area Memorial High School has installed a geothermal heating system.

Colbry said the wood pellet project was paid for with a low-interest loan from the federal government, under President Obama’s stimulus package.

“The payback will come from the savings from the oil,” he said. “You take the cost of the loan, you take the cost of the pellets and the cost of the boiler, compared to what we were spending on oil before — we’re saving between $60,000 and $100,000 a year.”

SAD 54 has a five-year contract with the Maine Woods Pellet Co. in Athens. Colbry said the boiler will burn about 600 tons of wood pellets per year, at $175 per ton, or about $105,000.

The oil equivalent would be twice the cost, he said, and the loan should be paid off in 10 years.

Colbry said the school board also authorized additional connections to accommodate natural gas, if those plans ever take shape and arrive in Skowhegan. Two oil-fired boilers will remain in place in each of the schools’ basements for backup and to make hot water during the warmer months when wood pellet boilers could overheat. There also are propane hot-water heaters in each school.

Colbry said the system is expected to be test-fired at the end of the month and fully operational by the first week of February.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

dharlow@centralmaine.com