Oregon school using biomass to educate, save money, create jobs

By Luke Geiver | December 08, 2011

Days Creek School in Douglas County, Ore., sped through a typically months-long process in roughly a week, becoming a biomass user capable of reaping the benefits the county’s forest economy can offer. Now the system is saving the school thousands. 

Douglas County may be in the heart of what Joe Laurance, Douglas County commissioner, calls the Saudi Arabia of Oregon biomass, but the county still has the highest unemployment rate in the state at roughly 13.5 percent. The rural K-12 school’s biomass boiler will not only help it save money, but it will create jobs and provide educational opportunities for students. Education is the most important aspect to Laurie Newton, superintendent for Days Creek School, who helped find the necessary funding to implement a biomass boiler fueled by wood pellets to heat her school.

Newton’s support of the biomass boiler, which heats the 35,000-square-foot facility at Days Creek, wasn’t always as strong as it is now, she said. As she explains it, it was through rumors that she first heard of her school switching from a diesel-powered boiler to the biomass version. On a Saturday banquet event in 2009, she was standing in a room across from Laurance, the person she said was responsible for telling others that her school would someday be heated from woody biomass. Instead of approaching Laurance and asking about the rumors, Newton said she realized she not only had the support, but an opportunity to make a positive change at the school.

Following the Saturday banquet, Newton looked into the possibility of turning her school into a biomass-based heating facility. By Wednesday she said, she had met with her school board, and after a call to a friend at the Oregon Department of Energy, she had written a grant proposal for some American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds linked to biomass.

“The following week, I got a call from the Oregon Department of Energy saying that this was the type of project they were looking for,” she said. The ODE wanted an example of a very small entity making such a project work.

For under $500,000, all of which was either funded through the ODE or through a school construction loan, Days Creek was able to install a biomass boiler provided by Oregon-based biomass boiler manufacturer SolaGen. The system features a remote access component that will allow SolaGen to monitor the system for the next year, and more important to Newton, provide access for her students to study the technology. The boiler also uses a catalytic conversion process to recycle emissions and a centrifugal system to reduce other remaining toxic particles, she said. “It is fascinating to look in that thing.”

The school is expected to save nearly $6,600 per year from using the system. Although people like Laurance, according to Newton, are high on biomass for its job creating potential for the area that can produce 2 million tons of forest biomass per year, Newton remains interested in the educational impact of the technology at the schools. “This would be great stuff for kids and perhaps we could integrate the technology behind this into the curriculum,” she said. In time, she plans to take her students to St. Helens, Ore., home of SolaGen.