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Jul 25, 2013 08:51 AM EDT

Cost-Effective and Eco-Friendly Initiative Powering Longwood University

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Longwood University just got involved in an environmental preservation act.

The university is purchasing lumber waste from 11 local logging mills and using them to warm up its 62-acre campus. The school's sawdust-fueled heating plant produces two megawatts of power from the waste which would otherwise usually end up in landfills.

"The initial move into sawdust was a business decision - it was based on finances and economics," said Richard Bratcher, Vice President of Facilities Management. "We now have a beautiful 'rails-to-trails' where the railroad tracks used to be, so we can't haul coal in here anymore... So, realistically our options are fuel oil and wood. And fuel oil is just extremely expensive."

Longwood's heating plant features two biomass boilers, which consume around 40 to 80 tons of sawdust per day. During winters and when student capacity reaches its peak, the university uses its old fuel oil plant. However, in summer, just one sawdust boiler is sufficient to heat the entire campus.

Last year, sawdust saved Longwood $4.5 million dollars. "At Longwood, we're trying to keep our eye on the future," said Kevin Miller, Energy Manager.

Apart from saving money and protecting the environment, the plant takes back 95 percent of the boilers' steam, increasing fuel efficiency.

"Whatever we emit from the plant as a byproduct of burning [the trees] - they absorb it as part of their growing process," said Miller. "So think of it as a one for one."

Recently, the university received a $250,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service for a third boiler that could generate electricity.

Bratcher said that the proposed third boiler could produce 'close to half the power for the institution,' and could save an additional $250 to $300K.

"If someone comes up with a distilled biomass product that's liquid, we'll be able to test burn it and then burn it," said Bratcher. "Whether it be chicken waste or other bio fuels, we want to be able to diversify the sources of fuels that we can use."

Miller said that the process could possibly power an entire village and large complexes could run just by using sawdust.

"As you get to a supply chain that could handle that maximum capacity, you're going to be even more rural," Miller said. "You'll hit a point where you're not gonna have the fuel supply and the consumer demand... so, probably where we're at is a good medium."

Bratcher said that most of the time the sawdust based green method doesn't work due to lack of woody biomass stations.

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