Biomass boiler saving Cowichan school district big bucks

They came from all over to gather in the library of Lake Cowichan School.

Officials from various Island governments plus a big group from various sectors of the business community.

Four jars on a table told the story.

They contained various kinds of wood chips and a promise that they could be used to heat buildings and even communities, cutting greenhouses gases and heating costs and offering a boost to many aspects of local industry.

The Cowichan Valley School District showcased its new $490,000 biomass boiler heating system, now up and operating at the sprawling Lake Cowichan School complex, which houses students from Grades 4-12.

According to the district’s energy manager Brian Branting, the project has been on the front burner at the district for close to five years.

Steve Bearss of Fink Machinery gave some details about the system installed at the school, the first of its kind in the district and probably the first of its kind on Vancouver Island.

Fink has been distributing these systems in many provinces for several years, he said.

His outfit started with a community project in Enderby, B.C. which runs on dry wood chips.

"These systems are incredibly efficient, incredibly clean. And they can run on a multitude of fuel types, as I’ve got on the table here," he said, displaying the jars.

"This is not your typical woodstove."

The design of the fuel burning system comes from Europe and it involves a two-part burn: the first allows it to start smoldering at low temperature to stop clinkering then it is pushed through to the next stage where an increase in oxygen helps boost the burning temperature.

That heat energy then gets transferred to a boiler system, which heats water to heat the school.

Lake Cowichan School is burning wood pellets at the moment and has only needed two deliveries this year, Branting said.

According to Bearss, many wood-based businesses and even community forest projects might find a use for their waste wood by supplying such systems and TimberWest is also apparently talking of pelletizing their wood waste on the Island.

"We’ve talked to Canadian Bavarian [in Chemainus]," Branting added. "Their shavings are something we’d look at. We’ve also talked to other local suppliers. It’s basically a waste product. Whether we use it or it’s breaking down in a landfill, it’s there anyway. We might as well make use of it."

But, Bearss said, one fuel that wouldn’t work would be anything from pressure-treated lumber.

"The chemicals in that will rust out the boiler very quickly," he said, adding that the usual lifespan of the boiler is about 25 years with some repair needed about halfway through that time.

Branting described the project at Lake Cowichan’s 8,141 square metre facility.

"It’s a fairly big school. And there is no natural gas in Lake Cowichan. That was the big issue for us. The original configuration here was three 500 million BTU cast iron atmospheric oil fired boilers. The biomass boiler we’ve put in there is the equivalent of one of those boilers.

"The oil consumption averaged about 87,000 litres per year and that is over 60 per cent of the fuel oil consumed across the whole district and 10 per cent of all district’s greenhouse gases."

That percentage may seem abnormally high but the reason is that quite a few of the district’s facilities don’t use oil, according to district operations manager Monroe Grobe.

"It made this site our single largest contributor to greenhouse gases out of the whole district. It definitely became a target pretty quickly," Branting said.

He then compared all the options the district considered: propane condensing boiler, air source

heat pump, ground source heat pump and biomass boiler, explaining that while all had some good points, the best combination for the district was a biomass boiler. He reminded the crowd that the district had to bear in mind that of out of all utilities, hydro is the one that’s going up, which put heat pumps at a disadvantage despite their offering a great increase in energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction.

Going to biomass was about the same cost as an air source heat pump but the utility cost savings could get up to $55,000 per year if the district can find a reliable nearby fuel source, he said, adding "even now we can save $37,500 per year."

Funding for the $490,000 project comes partly from being able to reduce the district’s carbon footprint, he said.

At present there is storage space on site for 25 tonnes of pellets or 20 tonnes of chips and the ground level bunker can be easily loaded with all kinds of fuels. A switch could tell the boiler if a different kind of fuel was heading in, he said.

The pellets cost $209 a tonne delivered from Princeton at the moment (with the pellets themselves accounting for about $100 of that). They order 22 tones at a time.

"We would love to have a source of chips on the Island. But they must be less than 30 per cent moisture content. There’s none of that available right now.

"The school would only be taking 12-15 truckloads a year. We’re still assessing how much we will use. Right now, it’s great but it’s been a warm winter. It’s tough to compare yet."

At LCS, the district’s HVAC technician does the maintenance, just as he looks after the district’s other equipment. Ashes are minimal and the district has not had to haul any away yet, he said.

An interesting point for anyone with experience of boilers or furnace rooms is that 85 per cent of the usable heat goes right into heating the school.

"There’s very little loss. The boiler room is not hot," Branting said, reminding the crowd of that when they later toured the building itself.

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