Pennsylvania town to become energy self-sufficient

By Erin Voegele
Web exclusive posted March 6, 2009, at 10:56 a.m. CST

The borough of Smethport, Pa., plans to implement a community-wide woody-biomass powered combined heat and power (CHP) system. On March 5 the Smethport Board of Trade announced that the Pittsburgh-based Richard King Mellon Foundation had awarded the community a $50,000 planning and engineering grant to support the Smethport Woody Biomass Demonstration Project.

In addition, the borough is in the process of hiring a project engineer consultant to oversee the planning phase of the project. To fill this position the community is seeking Statements of Qualifications (SOQ) from engineering consultants and other professional organizations with experience in the design of district heating distribution and wood-fired combined heat and power systems. The deadline for submitting SOQs is March 25.

Inspiration for the project resulted from a trip to Austria, said Smethport Mayor Ross Porter. Last year a delegation of educators and state and federal officials traveled to Austria to investigate renewable energy opportunities. As part of the trip, the delegation visited the Austrian town of Güssing, which is a model green energy community that generates the majority of its own energy and serves as a research hub in Europe for a variety of renewable energy projects.

Due to Smethport's abundant woody biomass resources, and the fact that the city owns its own electrical utility, the community was identified as one uniquely positioned to serve as a demonstration project for a woody-biomass powered CHP system. In addition, the community has a need to replace its potable water distribution system. The borough intends to install the distribution lines for the district heating system in the same trench as the new water distribution system, which will allow the community to reduce construction costs.

According to Porter, the project will utilize low-value and waste forestry products. "We're in the heart of the black cherry capital of the world," he said. "We have wonderful hardwoods here. We're not going to be using our good wood." The project will utilize waste wood and tree species that lack value and block the growth of more valuable hardwood trees, he added.

The project will be completed in conjunction with sustainability studies being conducted by Pennsylvania State University. One concept of the project is localization, Porter said. The project will utilize locally sourced feedstocks and lead to local economic development. The goal is to create a sustainable community-scale project, he continued. Construction on the project could start within 12 to 18 months.

Leaders of the project are working closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources, Pennsylvania State University, the U.S. Forest Service, the McKean County Commissioners, Pennsylvania State Sen. Joe Scarnati and Gov. Edward Rendell's offices, as well as a variety of other state and federal offices.

To learn more about the Smethport Woody Biomass Demonstration Project, visit the community's Web site.