On our blog, you have learned about different types of biofuel, the process for creating biofuel, and the global benefits of using biomass technology. Now it’s time to see all of this information put into practice. Different areas of the country have supported a program called Fuel for Schools, which encourages the use of renewable, local resources to provide heat to schools. Below we’ll explain the history of Fuel for Schools and the potential benefits and challenges that come with such an initiative.
How Did the Fuel for Schools Program Begin?
Fuel for Schools originated in Montpelier, Virginia. The timber processing industries in the area create a significant amount of woody biomass waste, and in the 1980s, a nonprofit organization called the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC) wanted to put this leftover material to good use. In 1986, the first Vermont school converted from an electric heating system to a woodchip heating system. Now 20% of public schools in Vermont use woody biomass for heat. In 2001, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service modeled an initiative after Vermont’s example. The year before, a series of wildfires devastated the western United States, Idaho and Montana in particular. The fires burned nearly seven million acres and caused more than two billion dollars in damage.
In response, the US government developed the National Fire Plan to provide assistance to the areas threatened by wildfires. The National Fire Plan, among its many goals, sought to reduce dry brush and trees that could perpetuate larger wildfires. With funds provided as part of this plan, the USDA Forest Service piloted the Fuels for Schools and Beyond program. In 2003, the Darby School District in Montana became the first in the state to implement a biomass system. The program then extended to the rest of the Northern and Intermountain regions, including Idaho, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
What Benefits Come From the Fuel for Schools Program?
The switch to woodchip heating systems requires time, effort, and money-so why have entire school districts committed to this program? Read about the benefits that Fuel for Schools offers below.
According to the BERC, biomass energy cost 30% less than oil and 75% percent than electricity at the start of these programs. Now, heat from natural gas, oil, and propane can be two to three times as expensive as heat from woodchips. The USDA Forest Service reported that the Darby School District saved close to $200,000 in 2011 from switching to biomass heat. Along with saving money, biomass energy contributes to the local economy since the money spent generally goes to local vendors.
Woodchip systems mainly require someone to remove ash each day. An automated system takes approximately 30 minutes of maintenance per day, while a semi-automated system takes approximately 60 minutes per day since the operator needs to load a day bin that supplies the system with fuel.
Positive Impact on the Environment
As you learned from this program’s history, Fuels for Schools makes use of biomass waste and improves forest health to reduce the risk of forest fires. Biomass technology can also benefit the environment in the following ways:
- Decrease use of non-renewable energy sources, such as fossil fuels.
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Provide a positive impact on acid rain since wood doesn’t contain sulfur.
These biomass energy systems provide the community with an opportunity to protect the environment and manage national forests.
What Challenges Do Schools Face With This Process?
Every school faces its own challenges with Fuel for Schools since each has a localized system. But the most common issues include the following.
Although this process saves schools a significant amount of money on energy costs, some schools have found that the initial cost to switch to biomass heat is too high. Along with the proper equipment, the system requires a building to house all the equipment and fuel. However, smaller schools can purchase a semi-automated system, which uses less equipment and, therefore, costs less.
When they aren’t using dry brush and other hazardous fuels from nearby forests, the program’s managers work with different vendors to obtain the fuel the schools need. Vendors typically offer the fuel that would otherwise be burned, so the fuel may contain debris that needs to be removed before processing, or the fuel may not come in as consistently as the school needs it to.
How Does This Program Affect You?
If you’re not involved with the public education system in any way, you might wonder why you should care about the benefits and challenges of the Fuel for Schools Program. Not only does this program plan to expand to other states, but it also might inspire similar programs in other industries. For example, few Nevada schools are located close enough to biomass fuel to justify the upgrade, so the Fuel for Schools program installed a biomass system at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, a facility more suited for the project. If you own or operate an industrial business, you might even decide to take a lesson from this program and convert to biomass energy yourself. To learn more about biomass technology and how Uzelac Industries fits into the equation, read through our other blog posts.