The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)

Heating With Wood

The University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) recently celebrated the opening of its new, state-of-the-art 5,885-square-foot Biomass Central Heat Plant and its invigorated commitment to sustainability. Aligning with the university’s emphasis on teaching and implementing the responsible use of the Earth’s resources, the new facility is an example of how environmental stewardship, energy cost reduction and support of the regional economy can all work hand in hand.

The largest single biomass hot water heating plant in Maine, UMF’s new facility now heats 83 percent of the campus with approximately 4,500 tons of hardwood chips per year. This renewable Maine fuel, sourced within a 50-mile radius of the university, replaces 390,000 gallons, or 95 percent, of the heating oil formerly required to heat the campus.

This dramatic reduction in fossil fuel is projected to reduce UMF’s carbon emissions by 4,000 tons a year and its annual energy costs by about two-thirds.

“We are very excited about UMF’s promising energy future that includes geothermal energy and now this new, sustainable, local fuel source,” says Kathryn A. Foster, UMF president. “Environmental stewardship is a core value in our classrooms, our campus life and our continuing commitment to reducing reliance upon fossil fuels.”

Learn By Doing

In addition to providing heat to the campus, the new biomass plant will also be a valuable learning facility. It will actively engage students in understanding biomass energy, associated systems and processes and will be embedded in several courses as a mandatory learning facet of several curricula and fields of study. The plant control room will be open to students and visitors to view the internal operations as well as several exterior viewing areas.

The birthplace of public higher education in Maine, UMF took the lead in the responsible and sustainable use of the Earth’s resources, adopting a “Green Campus Vision Statement” in 2002 and constructing one of the first buildings in Maine to seek LEED certification.

The university hopes to be carbon neutral by 2035, according to Luke Kellett, UMF sustainability coordinator, who sees the new heating system as a significant step in that direction. “The Biomass Central Heat Plant puts the flag in the ground and says this is what UMF really stands for,” says Kellett.

Plans for an alternate energy source for the campus began in 2013 when UMF President Foster drew on faculty and staff expertise to create an energy advisory committee. Composed of science faculty and staff from business and facilities, the group convened to research the university’s best options for alternate fuel sources. It was determined that biomass was the most sustainable and cost-effective choice, in addition to helping support the local timber-based economy.

The $11 million project was approved by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees early in 2015. Construction started in the spring of 2015 with the installation of more than two miles of heating lines to carry the hot water from the plant to residence halls and buildings throughout campus. The hot water from the loop is providing heat and domestic hot water to over 700,000 square feet of campus infrastructure.

Cutting-Edge Technology

According to Jeffrey McKay, UMF director of facilities management, the 500-horsepower biomass boiler is ultra-quiet. Its cutting edge electrostatic precipitator reduces plant emissions to a plume of water vapor that is well below the federal EPA emissions standards for acceptable levels of air pollutants. Ash in small quantities from the boiler will be composted by the university and local farmers as a lime agent.

“Prior to the development of this project the university heat infrastructure consisted of over 40 separate heating systems, which posed multiple challenges,” says McKay. “Now with the biomass plant in operation we look forward to reaping all of the rewards that the facility has to offer, including creating a learning opportunity for many years to come with a sustainable, energy-efficient heating plant.”

The initial investment for the system came from revenue bonds, and energy savings are estimated to cover all costs and provide a payback in less than 10 years. Savings after that time will be applied to campus operations. The life of the plant is 30-plus years.

The UMF Biomass Central Heat Plant and campus conversion project was developed by Trane U.S. Inc., working closely with Dirigo Architectural, LLC., UMF facilities department and the UMF administration. Trane was supported by Apex Engineering of Falmouth, ME, and by Civil Engineering Services of Brewer, ME, in the development of this complex project.

The design-build process ensures that the same team who was involved in the engineering design is responsible for construction, commissioning and ensuring the system operational performance after completion.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

April Mulherin is the associate director for Media Relations for the University of Maine at Farmington (