WATERVILLE – Colby College is building an $11 million biomass plant that will eliminate most of the college’s oil consumption by burning wood for heat, hot water, cooking and electricity.

The plant is being built next to the college’s current steam plant off Campus Drive. Its completion will make Colby the first college in Maine to operate a biomass plant on such a large scale, according to the college.

“We’re not aware of any colleges in Maine that do this type of biomass,” said Patricia Murphy, director of Colby’s physical plant.

The plant is expected to save the college about $1 million a year once it pays for itself in six to 10 years, Murphy said.

Officials expect a shakedown period for working out any bugs in the new facility, from October through December 2011, said Murphy. The plant is expected to be fully operational by January 2012.

Designed to reduce the college’s carbon emissions, the plant will burn about 22,000 tons of wood chips and forest waste such as bark and tree tops annually, replacing 90 percent of the 1.1 million gallons of heating oil the college now uses per year, said Colby spokeswoman Ruth Jacobs. The wood will come from forest operations within 50 miles of Colby.

The initiative will move the college closer to its goal of “carbon neutrality” by 2015.

Twin 400-horsepower biomass-fueled boilers will produce the steam needed for heat, hot water, cooking and electricity.

Murphy said many students, faculty and staff members have expressed interest in such a project, asking, ‘If we’re not conscious about our own carbon footprint, how can we really be leaders?’“

In 2003, Colby moved to 100 percent renewable electricity sources, said Jacobs. The college has a contract with Constellation Energy, which provides the college’s electricity through hydro, biomass and wind power sources.

In addition, a co-generation turbine on campus provides about 10 percent of the college’s electricity from steam plant exhaust.

The effort has helped establish a market for green power in Maine and led to national recognition for green power use, Jacobs said.

For three years, Colby has been named by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a “green power champion” within its athletic conference.

Middlebury College and Green Mountain College, both in Vermont, have biomass plants, and Colby officials visited those facilities when planning their biomass plant, said Murphy.

She said the current steam plant will serve as a backup for the biomass plant. The buildings will be attached.

Jacobs expects that during peak times, in December and January, the college will use wood-burning as its major source of power.

A sophisticated emissions system will be part of the plant, whose plans were approved this fall by the city and the state Department of Environmental Protection, Murphy said.

Colby now has only one heating fuel — oil. Officials have been working on the biomass plant idea for about four years, Murphy said.

Work on the plant started in October. The finished building will have a glass exterior that will make its inner workings visible.