Future of schools' biomass plant generates concerns

May 18—The countdown is on for officials from Crawford Central School District and Crawford Tech to determine how they will provide heat at four key community facilities this fall: Crawford Tech, Meadville Area Middle School, Meadville Area Senior High and Meadville Area Recreation Complex.

Primary heating for all four buildings is currently supplied by a biomass plant located on the Crawford Tech campus.

The plant, which burns renewable energy sources such as wood chips to generate high-pressure steam heat, was installed in hopes of generating big savings over a 25-year life span. Less than 15 years into that lifespan, with $2.1 million in construction-related bond payments remaining, the agencies served by the plant confront a situation in which returning to conventional boilers could be the best path for limiting expenses.

This week, Matt Barnes, a certified energy manager with Erie-based Rabe Environmental systems, gave similar presentations Monday to the board that oversees Crawford Central and Wednesday to the committee that oversees Crawford Tech. Drastic declines in the cost of natural gas since the biomass plant was completed in 2011 have had a similarly drastic impact on the cost-benefit analysis of continuing to use the biomass plant, according to Barnes.

When plans for the biomass plant were underway in 2008, volatile natural gas prices ranged from $5.82 per 1 million BTUs to $12.69 per 1 million BTUs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This year, prices have fluctuated between $3.18 and $1.49.

"It was extremely high," Barnes said of the cost of natural gas when the plant was being planned, "making the viability of the biomass a good, cost-effective source of energy at the time. I believe the district made a good-faith decision to build and operate the plant but would not have been able to predict the amount that natural gas prices would have dropped over the subsequent years."

Using the most recent winter season as an example, Barnes told Crawford Central board members that operating the biomass plant cost at least $61,000 more than heating with natural gas-fueled conventional boilers would have cost.

On top of the higher operating cost, the biomass plant needs approximately $100,000 in repairs to replace the refractory material, the heat-resistant brick lining inside the boiler, before the fall.

It also needs a new operator if it is to continue operating in its current manner: Crawford Central last month approved the September retirement of the longtime district employee responsible for running the system.

District officials have said finding a replacement is unlikely. But even if the operator could be replaced, consultants who assessed the district's various buildings earlier this year questioned the safety of relying on one person to operate a plant that runs around the clock from Oct. 15 to April 15 each year.

"He's basically a one-man show and that's never a good thing," engineer Jim Vizzini of Sharon-based architectural firm HHSDR told Crawford Central officials in February. In addition leaving a high-pressure steam system unmanned for much of the day on a regular basis, he added, "is not the safest thing to do."

This week, Matt Tarr, Crawford Central's director of buildings and grounds, told board members there would likely be a change in the heating process due to the retirement.

"Currently we won't have an operator in the coming year," he said, "so the recommendation would be to probably go from high-pressure steam to hot water."

The move to hot water would likely increase the operating cost as well, though Barnes declined to speculate on the extent of the cost.

While continuing to operate the biomass plant would definitely bring expenses, a switch to the conventional boilers in the Meadville school complex and Crawford Tech could bring benefits. The boilers are still maintained and remain in use for supplemental heating when necessary.

Crawford Tech would stand to benefit most directly. The building that houses the biomass plant would not simply sit empty if the plant operations were discontinued, Director Kevin Sprong said at Crawford Tech's meeting Wednesday. The school could quickly use it to expand class offerings.

In fact, Crawford Tech is already in the final stages of purchasing a former auto repair building located about 1,500 feet away, Sprong said. The $545,000 purchase is expected to be followed by significant renovation costs, and using a building on campus would be even safer and more convenient.

"I just want everybody to know that we would certainly change plans or make recommendations to utilize this building if it became available to us," he told committee members.

Tim McQuiston, the Conneaut School Board member who chairs the committee that oversees Crawford Tech, was optimistic about determining a path forward as early as next month.

"It's just a matter of now, just checking into, from my understanding, the fuel sources to see if there are better options on that end," he said, "and if that's something that's not feasible, I think it's a pretty easy decision."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.