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University moves forward with renewable energy plan

On March 25, the University of Maine System board of trustees authorized the spending of up to $5.7 million to continue negotiations for a plan to shift the Orono campus from use of fossil fuels to renewable energy.

This is the second phase of negotiations which would give Honeywell, an engineering firm, an offer to complete the design and provide a complete scope of the project.

Another portion of the money authorized on Monday would go towards hiring experts to work on the project.

Honeywell estimated the project to shift the UMaine campus toward renewable energy will save around $6 million in electricity and heat costs per year through implementing a new power plant and solar array. A long-term wood-fuel contract would also provide a more predictable and stable energy cost.

The project will also help out the surrounding community by investing about $2.1 million in the local economy every year. It also will create 50 jobs in logging, trucking and forestry.

No power will be sold off campus. The plant would use natural gas and oil or liquid biofuels as backups for its boilers in addition to a solar array. It will produce high-pressure steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity and power from the grid will fill in the balance. This design will allow it to be able to run most of the campus in the case of a natural disaster or blackout.

“I think this move by the university is most certainly a positive one, and likely the only way UMaine can achieve its carbon reduction commitments without spending many hundreds of millions of dollars,” Dan Dixon, the director of the Office of Sustainability on campus, said.

Dixon further explained that there are two primary factors that drive this project.

The first is that the Steam Plant is in desperate need of replacement and many areas of campus need work on their electrical and steam systems. The second factor is cost-effectiveness. By switching to cheaper fuel, this project is estimated to pay for itself over a 20 to 30 year period.

The added bonuses of this project would include the switch from fossil fuels to a renewable source. The biomass fuel will be harvest from sustainably-managed sources within 100 miles of campus.

“I would like to see the Forestry and Engineering Schools getting involved at an early stage to mold the facility design into something that can be used as an educational resource,” Dixon said. “For example, it would be great if UMaine’s own forestry students could get into the field to assess the sustainability of the wood-harvesting operations that are producing our fuel.”

Dalton Bouchles, an economics student and president of the Sustainability and Environmental Action Division on campus, also showed support for the plan.

“The idea that University of Maine could power most of its electricity and heat production thanks to the development of this biomass burner and solar array sounds fantastic,” Bouchles said.

Bouchles also expressed concern about the sustainability of the wood-harvesting. His only concern is that even if they are locally harvested, the large number of trees being harvested could result in Maine forests suffering.

“I do agree though that it is time to switch off of our current heat and electricity producer at the steam plant next to Stillwater River,” Bouchles said.

These concerns still have the chance to be taken into account, though, as plans have not yet been finalized by Honeywell or UMaine.

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