2015-09-04 / Front Page

Building will run on wood, not oil

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Although it will add significantly to upfront construction costs, South Portland’s new public services complex is now poised to be equipped with a biomass boiler, rather than a conventional oil furnace.

The city council gave the nod to the change of plans at a workshop session Monday, Aug. 24 following a presentation by Rick Towle, director of parks and recreation, one of three city departments slated to move into the new $15.7 million building. Voters in November 2013 approved borrowing $14 million to fund the construction.

City officials broke ground on the site at 929 Highland Ave. last week, and work is now underway to move the transfer station to that location. The main building is expected to go out to bid in November or December, City Manager Jim Gailey said, with construction due to be complete in 16 to 18 months.

“We’re at the critical point where we could end up spending a lot of money if we have to go back and redesign anything,” Towle said, explaining his request for the council’s blessing on the change of heating systems.

That change, Towle said, was driven largely by the council’s adoption of a Climate Action Plan in the months since the original design was approved for the new building.

The major concern, Towle noted, is the upfront cost of the biomass boiler, which will burn wood chips in a separate building from the main complex and pump hot water to heat the rooms, largely though radiant tubing built into floors and ceilings.

Towle pegged the price tag of installing the biomass boiler at $1.6 million, far greater than the $100,000 cost he said a conventional oil furnace built for commercial use would cost. However, there is some play in the budget, he said, because the final estimate for relocating the transfer station, originally seen as a $2.2 million investment, came in at $1.6 million. Similar savings may be realized on the main building, he said.

“We’re trying to achieve economy with a reasonable appearance,” said David Lay, of SMRT.

“You will notice the initial cost is high, but we’re talking an 11-year payback,” said SMRT project architect Peter Anderson.

That return on investment was based on an estimated annual cost of $40,441 for wood chips, as opposed to $86,157 for oil.

“Maine has lots of trees and has the infrastructure in place to create the wood chips. The market already exists,” he said. “Maintenance (costs are) increased, but overall, when combined with the lower cost of fuel and the rapid payback, that’s actually not a critical factor.”

“We felt this is was our best shot at a viable, sustainable resource where we live, here in Maine,” Towle said.

For the most part, councilors were on board with the idea. The only reservation aired was having the project go out to bid using specs for several possible systems, not just the one used by Towle and SMRT to make their presentation.

“That would be a condition of my support,” said Councilor Claude Morgan.

“Any time we can wean ourselves off of any petroleum product, I think we are moving in the right direction, so I certainly like where we’re heading and do support it,” said Councilor Tom Blake.

However, some in the audience wanted the city to go one step further.

“My concern had been from the get-go on this project is that we are not looking forward far enough on the design,” said Deake Street resident Robert Sellin, making note of the vast expanse of roof space that could be put to use hosting solar panels.

“The engineers, in my opinion, have dropped the ball,” he said.

“Putting panels on the roof necessitates significant structural reinforcement,” Anderson said. “That would have added significant additional costs.”

However, because officials in South Portland have, over the past few years, floated the idea of entering a public/private partnership to build a solar array atop the old city landfill behind the new public services site, Anderson said modifications were made to the engineering plans.

“We did incorporate electrical roomsspace and capacity in switching gear to accommodate 1 megawatt of power to come in from any solar farm and back into grid,” he said.

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