– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor
Four school districts in western Massachusetts plan to switch out existing oil or propane heating systems for wood pellets, despite red flags raised by public health advocates.
Currently, biomass heating in New England is more economical than propane, slightly more expensive than fuel oil # 2, and several times more costly than natural gas.
As of May, the average cost of propane per million BTU in New Hampshire is $28.32 ($2.59/gallon), with wood pellets at $15.65 ($258/ton), fuel oil #2 at $13.95 ($1.93/gallon), and natural gas at $8.62 ($.86/therm), according to the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.
The Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs doesn’t publish BTU calculations, however rates for propane are slightly higher than in New Hampshire ($2.75/gallon), nearly the same for wood pellets ($260/ton), and fuel oil a bit higher ($2.18/gallon), with the biggest difference being natural gas, at one-third the cost ($.25/therm).
To help defray the expense of “renewable thermal heating and cooling upgrades,” the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) offers Schools and Public Housing Integrating Renewables and Efficiency (SAPHIRE) grants.
This year, the Sanderson Academy Elementary School in Ashfield received a $171,598 SAPHIRE grant to replace its oil heating system with wood pellets. Last year, the Hawlemont Elementary School in Charlemont and Heath Elementary School received a total of $355,375 to switch to wood pellets.
Other recipients of SAPHIRE grants for switching from oil to biomass heating include the Mount Everett Regional High School and Undermountain Elementary in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, Overlook Middle School in the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District, Petersham Central Elementary School in the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, and the Berlin Memorial Elementary School in the Berlin-Boylston Regional School District.
But economics isn’t the only topic relevant to biomass heating at schools. The American Lung Association, the Buckland County Board of Health, and local advocates are worried about schoolchildren’s exposure to air pollution from wood heating systems.