Colorado school trades coal-fired furnace for biomass

By Timothy Charles Holmseth
One of the last coal-fired heating systems being used in a Colorado public school was shut down May 19 to make a switch to biomass power. The South Routt School District will now be using woody biomass to heat its buildings.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter attended the event and symbolically shoveled the last scoop of coal into the Soroco High School furnace in Oak Creek, Colo., to "commemorate change," said Megan Castle, director of communications for Ritter's Energy Office.

The outdated coal-fired system had been in place since the 1930s, Castle said, adding that it may have been updated in the 1950s. The outgoing coal-fired system was unhealthy-the school would often have ash within it-and it often needed maintenance, she said.

The coal-fired system will be replaced with a modern geothermal heat pump, often called a "geo-exchange" system, and a woody biomass heating system. The environmental benefits of the new system include less coal dust, ash and soot, and 977 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs is providing $625,000 toward the overall project cost of $4.1 million, and the Colorado Department of Education is providing $1.5 million.

The change was recognized by Ritter at an assembly and community lunch featuring the school's student-run Green Team. "It's clear you have a vision about your future and about how we can build a new energy economy that blends education with renewables and healthy forests," he said. "It's a perfect trifecta."

The school district's effort is consistent with Ritter's three-point objective to develop a new energy economy, improve the schools and quality of education by reducing energy costs, and building healthy forests, Castle said. With the new heating system, the school is expected to save money and time, reduce maintenance, and improve the health of those in the facility.

The student body's Green Team was awarded a scholarship by McKinstry Co., which was contracted to install the new system. The wood pellets to be burned as fuel will come from wood damaged by local pine beetles supplied by Confluence Energy, based in nearby Kremmling, Colo.

Woody biomass heating systems provide jobs for rural and mountain areas, a clean energy source, and solutions to the pine beetle problem, said Castle, who added that this is also an important step for Colorado's healthy forest initiatives.