FARMINGTON — The University of Maine at Farmington’s new biomass plant has outperformed expectations in its first year in operation, lowering energy costs and usage and generating $7 in economic activity for every dollar spent to fuel the plant, according to university officials.

With the additional savings the plant has created, it is on schedule to pay itself off in less than the 10 years initially projected, although UMF director of facilities management Jeffrey McKay said he would not know until June just how much the university saved in energy costs this year. Even so, McKay said the plant had proven more efficient, using less fuel overall than in previous years and requiring less energy for heat and hot water.

“It is exceeding expectations. It’s going very well,” McKay said. “It’s definitely living up to those expectations, but actually a little bit better. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much, better because I don’t have a lot of data yet.”

The plant heats and provides hot water for 23 UMF buildings, or 80 to 85 percent of the campus, with plans to add a building to the plant’s heating loop in the future, McKay said. The remainder of the campus relies on geothermal energy.

As part of the university’s sustainability plan, fuel for the plant must be sourced within 50 miles of the campus, cutting down on the plant’s carbon footprint. That plan also has proved a boon for the local economy. According to the Northern Forest Center, every $1 the university has paid to fuel the plant has generated $7 in local economic activity. By that calculation, the $165,000 the university paid for wood chips this past year generated an additional $1.2 million.

The university unveiled the plant last March after delays in a long-discussed natural gas pipeline extension to Farmington pushed university officials to look at other options. The plant was expected to replace 95 percent of the 390,000 gallons in heating oil and reduce the university’s carbon emissions by 3,000 tons a year. McKay said he expects to exceed those projections thanks to work the university recently undertook to upgrade heating systems in three residence halls on the biomass loop.

The plant also employs an electrostatic precipitator, a type of filtration device, to clean its ash emissions. That ash is rendered so clean that it has been approved by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association for use on crops, McKay said. Several local farms are using the ash in lieu of lime, though the plant generated only about 40 yards of ash this winter.

It is not clear if UMF’s switch to biomass further stalled plans to extend natural gas lines in Franklin County. Lizzie Reinholt, spokesperson for Summit Natural Gas, cited Franklin County’s remote and rural location as well as mountainous areas as some of the challenges facing natural gas providers interested in expanding in the region.

“We are always looking for new opportunities to expand our footprint and increase access to natural gas,” Reinholt said. “In order to warrant any type of expansion, however, we need to have enough customers at the end of every line we build. Unfortunately, at this point it doesn’t make economic sense to expand to Farmington, as the cost of the project continues to be a barrier to growth.”

McKay said a natural gas plant would have been a cheaper alternative to the biomass plant, at least initially, but argued that the current plant goes further to reduce the university’s environmental impact.

“We’re pretty strongly feeling that that’s what we’re going to find, is this is definitely a greater impact on carbon footprint reduction than if we were bringing in natural gas,” McKay said.

The plant is just one of the latest moves in the University of Maine System’s push to reduce its energy costs and environmental impact. In 2015, the system’s board of trustees voted to divest itself partially from investments in the coal industry. As part of its “coal divestiture policy,” the board agreed to withdraw about $500,000 of its $1.7 million in coal investments and screen future investment options to prevent new investment in the coal industry. Last month, the system announced a new investment policy that “will give consideration to Environmental, Social, and Governance principles in making investment and management decisions,” according to a university news release. While the new policy does not commit the system to divestiture from all fossil fuels, it promises to “weed out the worst offenders,” said University of Maine Trustee and Investment Committee Chair Karl Turner.

The change comes as the University of Maine System marked a 34 percent reduction in its emissions since 2006. The system also accomplished an 87 percent reduction in consumption of high-intensity fossil fuels, including heating and fuel oil, as campuses across the system turn to a mix of renewable energy sources, natural gas and propane.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

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Twitter: @KateRMcCormick