2015-11-20 / Front Page

Public services complex in SoPo to burn natural gas instead of biomass

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city council did an about face on Monday, choosing to heat South Portland’s new $15.7 million public services complex, to be built at 929 Highland Ave., with natural gas instead of wood chips.

The eleventh-hour change came down to dollars and cents. But mostly dollars. A lot of them.

At an Aug. 24 workshop, the council agreed to a design change, forsaking a conventional oil burner said to cost $100,000, in favor for a biomass boiler, then estimated to run between $1.3 and $1.6 million. The plan was to burn wood chips in a separate building from the main complex and pump hot water from the boiler heat rooms and garage bays though radiant tubing built into floors and ceilings.

Although the project budget included $300,000 for a heating plant, councilors were willing to shoulder the extra cost to comply with a recently adopted Climate Action Plan, which calls on the city give a cold shoulder to No. 2 oil as a heat source, wherever possible.

“Any time we can wean ourselves off of any petroleum product, I think we are moving in the right direction,” Councilor Tom Blake said at the time.

However, City Manger Jim Gailey said Monday that, since August, cost estimates for the biomass facility have come in at the higher, $1.6 million end of the estimate range — $1,634,077, to be exact. Meanwhile, talks with natural gas company Unitil have put that product on the table as a viable option.

Mayor Linda Cohen said she has been negotiating with Unitil on behalf of Highland Avenue residents for more than a year to interest the company in extending its gas lines to the area. Eventually, she said, Unitil may bring natural gas all the way up Highland to the Scarborough town line. But for now, at least, it is willing to go as far as the new public works complex.

“Unitil is now willing to extend the gas main if the city resurfaces the trench,” Gailey said.

The city recently repaved most of Highland Avenue, and, as such, would ordinarily impose a five-year moratorium on new, non-emergency street openings. Generally, that rule would compel Unitil to undertake curb-to-curb repaving, rather than merely patching the hole made in the road for the new line. However, Gailey said the city can undertake remediation work to the roadway for $35,000.

Meanwhile, the price for two natural gas boilers will cost $210,587 — less than the initial $300,000 budget to heat the building and a $1.4 million savings off the up-front construction costs for a biomass plant.

On top of that, as Councilor Maxine Beecher pointed out, natural gas is almost an install-it-and-forget-it option, when compared to the ongoing maintenance costs of a biomass boiler, which would involve regular delivery and handling of wood chips.

“You don’t even have the labor factored in,” she said.

“We feel as though, to come in on budget and have a cleaner-burning, less maintenance-involved fuel source, that is the correct way to go,” Gailey said. “As much as we love many aspects of biomass, at this time we just don’t feel it’s the correct fuel source, so far as one that would have many more positives over the use of natural gas.”

South Portland Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach said it is a “cleaner burning fuel, definitely,” than wood chips, or wood pellets. However, the advantage of biomass is that it is a renewable resource.

But Blake said biomass could be almost more trouble than it’s worth.

“The state of the Maine woods is a mess, it really is,” he said. “We have some of the worst wood qualities, and some of the worst (wood) pellet production in the country.

“I guarantee you, this winter there will be times when homeowners can not find pellets in the greater Portland area, and, when we do, they will get them from Colorado or California or Oregon. Very seldom can you get them from Maine.”

And, although Rosenbach said emissions from biomass plants “don’t tend to pose problems,” Cohen said some soot and particulate matter may still escape into the atmosphere, even in a biomass plant designed to burn such byproducts of wood fuel, releasing only steam.

“I have a problem putting stuff off into the air when we’re not totally sure what it is that we’re putting out there,” she said. “No one has told us yet that would be a totally clean process, and we do have houses up around there, and pretty close in some cases.”

Eventually, all councilors voiced support for the natural gas option, although not all did so with enthusiasm.

“Where are we with our climate action plan if we can’t live it?” Councilor Patti Smith asked. “If we were really serious about our climate change action plan and money was not an object, we should really be thinking about renewable energies and the biomass option would be pretty easy to choose.”

Both Smith and Blake made note of a planned solar array to be built atop the city’s landfill behind the new public services building. A city recently issued a request for proposal on the project and is currently vetting offers. In August, Gailey said the new building is being designed to eventually draw power from the nearby solar station. However, consultants onhand Monday from the architectural firm working on the building, Portland-based SMRT, said hooking up the heating system to the solar power array would be an inefficient use of any electricity provided.

“It would work, but I don’t think it would be the best use of your electricity to heat water,” said engineer Kerry Dineen.

Instead, councilors were provided scores of charts and graphs showing the long-term costs of both natural gas and biomass over the next 30 years. However, most councilors seemed little impressed with that predictive data.

“I really don’t believe in these graphs,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “If you could really tell me what fuel prices will be in 30 years, you wouldn’t be here, you’d be cashing your chips and investing full time.”

What did seem to impress most on the council was the reported time crunch for making a decision. The plan had been to put construction out to bid this month, but that’s been put on hold until a heating source is selected, Gailey said.

“Everything has really slowed down because we haven’t answered this question,” he said.

“We have to make a decision, because we need to move this project forward and right now this is holding it up,” Cohen said. “And the longer we hold it up, the more likely the price of building this building is going to go up.”

Ultimately, councilors agreed that it all came down to the price tag.

“I wish it was easier for us to go down a cleaner path, but it’s not right now, and that’s the reality of where we are,” Smith said.

Voters in November 2013 approved borrowing $14 million to fund the construction of the new public services complex, which will house the city departments of transportation, public works and parks. Once a builder is chosen, construction is expected to take up to 18 months, putting the building on target for opening in summer 2017.

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