When most people think of wood energy, visions of filling a wood stove, and carrying out ashes, smoke, and creosote come to mind. But, modern wood chip heating systems are nothing like old wood stoves. Wood chips are fed to a boiler automatically, where high combustion temperatures result in a high-efficiency, nearly smoke-free burn. Wood chip fuel has proven to be a cost-effective alternative to electricity and oil in industrial, commercial, and institutional applications.

In a growing number of schools across Vermont, children are learning in warm classrooms heated with wood energy. Since the early 1980s, the Vermont Wood Energy Program has helped school districts investigate the feasibility of using wood to meet their energy needs. To date, 23 public and private schools have converted to wood chip heating systems or installed them in new construction. Low-cost wood fuel has helped school systems make significant savings on their energy expenses.

The Vermont Wood Energy Program, operated jointly by the Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and the Department of Public Service, has progressed from an emphasis on residential wood stoves to small automated wood chip heating systems and larger commercial and industrial combined heat and power systems. The goal is not only to reduce the Vermont’s dependence on non-renewable fossil energy but also to help improve the health and viability of our forest lands and rural economy. Heating schools with wood chips helps to support local sawmills and wood manufacturers by adding value to their manufacturing residue, and the state’s economy also benefits by keeping energy dollars closer to home. At the same time, the program strives to lower Vermont’s contribution to global warming through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Jeff Lecours, maintenance supervisor at Hazen Union High School in Hardwick, has operated the school’s wood chip heating system since the conversion from electric heat in 1993. According to Lecours, the school spent nearly $92,000 on electricity during the 1992–1993 school year. In the first year following the conversion to, Hazen Union taxpayers saved nearly $30,000 in annual energy expenses, and the savings have continued in each succeeding year (see box).

In Newport, wood energy created a school-business partnership which benefits both parties. Two years ago, Newport Furniture Parts, a local manufacturer of furniture parts and glider rockers, was having difficulty disposing of its wood residues. At the same time, North Country Union High School’s original oil-fired boilers were failing and needed to be replaced. The furniture manufacturer and school struck an arrangement whereby Newport Furniture Parts acquired the equipment it needed to convert its residues to wood chips, and the school receives fuel for the cost of transportation from the plant. The wood fuel conversion cost approximately $260,000.

“Simply replacing the oil boilers would have cost roughly $170,000,” says Tom Jensen, chair of the school board’s finance committee at the time of the conversion. The wood chip heating system has not yet been used for a full heating season, but the school anticipates a significant reduction in its annual fuel bill. The project has also allowed the school improve ventilation and indoor air quality, something which would not have been possible without the new boiler, according to Ron Chaffee, the high school’s maintenance supervisor.

School boards and taxpayers continue to look to the use of wood chips to meet school energy needs. Personnel from the Vermont Wood Energy Program are available to assist schools investigate the use of wood for energy.

To learn more about heating with wood, please visit the Vermont Wood Energy Program’s website at http://www.state.vt.us/psd/ee/ee18.htm or contact Paul Frederick at (802) 241-3698.