Warming a Campus With Wood

On the campus of Longwood University in Farmville, VA, nearly 100 percent of the heat and hot water are supplied from biomass fuel, a local and renewable fuel source, thanks to a biomass heating plant that was officially opened in September 2011.

Longwood has practiced sustainability by heating with biomass fuel (sawdust) for over 30 years. Longwood is the only public institution of higher education in Virginia and one of only two state agencies that burns biomass for heating fuel. Current annual energy savings are more than $4.9M when compared with burning oil, which the University used as its fuel source before switching to biomass.

“We have been burning woody biomass for our heating heat and hot water needs since 1983, which is longer than most of our students have been alive. You might say we have been green since before green was cool,” former Longwood President Patrick Finnegan said at the plant’s official opening.

Local Benefits

At the time of plant’s opening, former President Finnegan also observed that it supports the local Southern Virginia economy with the purchase of sawdust from local sawmills and keeps energy dollars in Virginia. Even the ash resulting from burning the biomass is composted and reused on campus as fertilizer.

Richard Bratcher, Longwood’s vice president of Facilities and Real Property, calls the biomass heating plant “one of the most unique and significant facilities that we have on campus. This building is a shining representation of ingenuity, sustainability, and a vision for tomorrow.”

The facility has two storage silos for the sawdust that is Longwood’s primary heating fuel. The side-by-side silos are enclosed in the brick-façade building. They have a combined storage capacity of 40,000 cubic feet, or approximately one-and-a-half weeks of fuel. The facility also has the capacity for a third boiler to be added later to help with peak demand periods and accommodate for future growth.

“The boilers we use today are far more efficient than the boilers we used in 1983 when we first began burning woody biomass,” says Bob Chambers, project manager for the University’s Capital Planning and Construction Department, who oversaw the construction of the heating plant. Each boiler can produce 20,700 lbs. of saturated steam per hour.

“The biomass heating plant provides us the ability to eventually diversify our fuel source and be able to accept small wood chips as well as sawdust,” says Bratcher. “This capability will allow us to remain cutting edge and one step ahead of the markets.”

The sawdust, mostly pine and some hardwood, is a byproduct from local mills. Longwood can therefore spend its energy dollar locally in Southern Virginia on a renewable energy source. Burning the sawdust is not only cost-effective but also ecologically responsible, due to its hazardous emissions being lower than gas, oil, and coal.

Recognition of Success

And as recognition of its ongoing commitment to biomass, Longwood University has recently received a $50,000 grant from Dominion Virginia Power to commission a pre-planning study to create a biomass fuel processing center.

Longwood’s plan to better process, dry, and store the woody biomass fuel (sawdust) — which would improve the energy gained from the biomass when it’s burned — was among eight projects at Virginia colleges and universities selected to receive renewable energy research and development funding from Dominion’s new R&D Partnership Program. Governor Bob McDonnell’s office recently announced the projects, which received a total of $1.4M.

The study will enable Longwood to identify the most efficient and sustainable way of processing, drying, and storing the biomass. This is expected to improve the consistency of wood residues and reduce moisture content of the biomass. The study is the first phase of a four-phase project in which a prototype biomass processing plant will be developed at the off-campus site owned by Longwood where the biomass is currently stored and processed.

“Our goal for this processing facility is to create a consistent fuel product for the heating plant,” says Kevin Miller, Longwood’s energy manager. “Our sawdust can vary between 40 to 60 percent moisture content, so we have to create enough heat to burn the moisture out before the fuel can reach its combustion point. Drier sawdust will result in a more efficient plant, lower maintenance costs — wet sawdust is hard on equipment — and increased storage capacity. We plan to dry the sawdust using renewable energy technology.”

Dominion’s R&D Partnership Program was prompted by successful legislation proposed by the governor last session that provides credit to utility companies that meet renewable energy goals specified in the 2010 Virginia Energy Plan.