South Portland opts for natural gas, not biomass, at Public Works Dept.

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The new Municipal Services Facility will be fueled by natural gas rather than biomass, a decision some officials believe contradicts the city’s sustainability goals. 

The new, facility at 929 Highland Ave. will house a 70,000-square-foot Public Works Department building, along with a swap shop, compost pile, snow dump, sand and salt sheds, parking for city school buses, and a fueling station for all city vehicles. 

The first phase of construction for the $15.7 million project is expected to be completed this December. The final phase is expected to wrap up in June 2017. The big question in recent weeks has been deciding on the fuel source.

The city’s Climate Action Plan stresses a desire to move away from using heating oil in city buildings and heat with more organic and sustainable fuel sources. Until the council decided Monday, Nov. 16, to accept the city manager’s recommendation to go with natural gas, staff and councilors had been considering the economic benefits of biomass. 

Biomass, considered an alternative fuel source, turns organic material such as wood chips or plant matter into fuel via wood-fired boilers. While the cost to install a biomass system is higher up front, the cost to fuel the system tends to be cheaper in the long run.

“In one case you’re paying more for your equipment up front and then paying less for your fuel. In the other you’re paying less for your equipment up front and then more for your fuel,” David Lay, an architect with SMRT Architects and Engineers, told councilors on Monday. 

In total, over the next 30 years, a biomass system is estimated to cost about $3 millio, versus $3.8 million for natural gas, according to the proposal. 

Initial costs to install a biomass heating system would be between $1.4 million and $1.6 million; a natural gas system would be less than $200,000 to install, City Manager Jim Gailey said. 

The city has allocated $300,000 to fund the fuel source, Gailey said, which would create a large shortfall to fund biomass.

“If we go with biomass, we have a deficit of $1.3 million. To come in on budget and to have a cleaner burning and less maintenance-involved fuel source, (natural gas) is the way to go,” he said. 

A major concern about heating with biomass remains the particulate matter that pollutes the air after the woodchips are burned. Even though biomass heats sustainably, its emissions are dirtier than natural gas, especially without proper filtration.

“What is in question is the extent to which these emissions contribute to climate change,” Julie Rosenbach, sustainability coordinator, wrote in an October memo to city staff. 

“What we do know is that burning fossil fuels unavoidably increases the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, resulting in climate change,” Rosenbach wrote. But burning biomass does not inevitably result in this outcome; if the filtering system is efficient, it can greatly reduce the level of carbon emissions that would otherwise exist, she said.

“In these newer efficient systems, there are at least four different types of controlled techniques,” Rosenbach said Monday. 

Natural gas is “definitely” one of the “cleanest burning fuels,” she said, “but the emissions that come out from biomass don’t tend to pose problems unless you don’t have the proper controls on the system.” 

On the natural gas side, the biggest obstacle, aside from not being as organic as biomass, is how the city would get natural gas to the facility.

In recent weeks, however, Unitil has assured the city that extending a gas main from Evans Street to the new facility is possible, and would also bring the option of natural gas to residents along Highland Avenue. This would require the city to untrench and repave that portion of Highland Avenue, which is estimated to cost about $35,000. 

At a workshop following the Nov. 16 council meeting, councilors determined that, while using biomass better aligns with the city’s Climate Action Plan, the unknown factors – such as carbon emissions and the increased cost– make natural gas a more prudent option. 

“If inflation is steady over the next 30 years, you’ll do better with wood chips,” Lay said. “(But) our comfort zone is to say ‘with today’s dollars, without inflation, without predicting what the future will be.’ (Using that methodology) you’re about on par economically with the two choices that you have.”

Still, some councilors urged the city to remember its goal of striving for sustainable practices.

Councilor Patti Smith recognized the fiscal restraints, but also urged the council and staff to continue to exhaust all sustainable options for future proposals. 

“Biomass is really the future … it’s unfortuante we can’t take a step there,” Smith said. 

By opting to use a petroleum product, “we’re not meeting our goal of (being) sustainable,” Councilor Tom Blake said. “We want, ultimately, to have a sustainable fuel source for that building.”

“I envision a day in South Portland where we are like Burlington (Vermont) – 65,000 people (and) 100 percent of the power that they use in that municipality for government, they produce in that municipality,” he said. “And by this action we’re taking tonight, we’re going in the opposite direction.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland city councilors decided on Monday to heat the new Municipal Services Facility off Highland Avenue with natural gas, rather than with biomass. 

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.