By: Rose Miller, Staff Reporter 

Building graphic of Biomass heating in lot 9 (Photo by Rose Miller)

Building graphic of Biomass heating in lot 9 (Photo by Rose Miller)

While most Maine residents are more or less accustomed to summer being synonymous with road construction, it’s clear from the sprawling trenches to the heaping dirt piles lining campus streets that UMF is undertaking a tad more than perennial frost heave repairs. Several years of talks regarding UMF’s energy future were realized this spring when Facilities in conjunction with a private contractor began installation of a new Biomass Heating System which is designed to deliver energy more efficiently throughout campus. Facilities Director Jeff McKay explains, “the new system will be much more controllable and folks should recognize the ability to control heat in their spaces much better.”

Where the major work had began this summer, the rough timeline is still on track, although slight delays have cropped up along the way. It was substantiated by several sources that the most invasive work affecting residence halls will be winding down shortly and the heating plant is expected to be up and running when students return from winter break.

For anyone gasping at the gap between the beginning of heating season and the expected completion date, fear not. McKay assured that heat will switch on about the same time as every year. “We have several layers of contingency planning in the works but we have been guaranteed that there will be heat in the buildings,” said McKay via email.

This new system will be different from UMF’s current heating model in several key ways. The first is obvious; the Biomass Central Heating Plant will burn wood, not oil. UMF Sustainability Coordinator Luke Kellett provided some background on the fuel source. Biomass can be comprised of many organic materials, though UMF has decided on using wood chips. Though Biomass is renewable, Kellett explained it is not completely “carbon neutral.” Meaning burning biomass could still produce a net positive of carbon released into the atmosphere if trees are cut down too quickly to make chips.

The second key change is centralization. Currently each campus building runs on its own boiler. Said McKay, “Many of the existing heating systems were over 50 years old and the campus was in jeopardy of many of them failing causing great concern of risk.”

In an email, UMF President Kate Foster expanded on how this problem lead to the conception of the project now underway. “Rather than replace each boiler as need demanded,” said Foster, “we decided to be forward looking and consider a broader solution to UMF’s energy needs.” In addition to the change in fuel, this new system will create a centralized heating model which connects building to building on a loop.

McKay took the time to explain some of the sights that have become familiar to students throughout the past weeks as the project continues. For instance, the trenches along the sidewalks are housing the two miles of pipe being laid to run hot water to various campus buildings. As many know, Parking Lot 9 is also an active construction site. McKay explained that the building being assembled there, called the Central Heating Plant will hold the two biomass boilers and other necessary equipment to pump hot water throughout campus.

As many students are more than aware, construction is also extending into residence halls. Scott Hall has been particularly affected as students who were supposed to live in the North or South wings of the basement have been displaced elsewhere on campus for the time being. Kellett explained that some buildings, Scott included, need upgrades to their existing heating systems to make them compatible with the centralized plant. Some buildings need “major mechanical upgrades in order to sort of link themselves into this new hot water system,” said Kellett.

Kelsey Champagne, the Assistant Director of Housing, explained that the original date given to Housing by Facilities was Monday September 21 for all displaced students to move into their rooms in Scott basement. However, delays meant workers would still be finishing up in the hallways and in some cases, in rooms as well. While students could move in the 21st they were also given the option to move in at the end of the week or the following Friday to avoid this inconvenience. They would also receive a financial incentive in the form of a partial housing refund.

Ben Rodriguez, a junior at UMF, expressed a fairly positive attitude toward being displaced from Scott. “It hasn’t really bothered me much cause I see it as temporary.” Rodriguez continued, “I know the faculty and staff care so I’m willing to wait it out.”

McKay commented on the potential for the project to interrupt campus life. “The overall project schedule is intact, it is just a long project, that unfortunately, could not be completed in a time frame that would be immune to campus schedules,” said McKay. “We are hopeful that the very intrusive work will be over very shortly and the gains/benefits for the project will be realized over the next 40 years.”

The benefits are extensive according to several sources. President Foster outlined some of these. In addition to reducing UMF’s carbon footprint by saving 390,000 gallons in heating oil annually, locally purchased wood chips will support the regional economy. Foster also noted an unanticipated benefit of the heating plant. “The new plant has a classroom built into it for use by UMF and other schools to learn more about energy production and impacts.”

Some students may recall chatter over the past few years about the possibility of natural gas coming to Farmington. While natural gas was initially the Central Heating Plant Building Committee’s choice, the company intending to run natural gas lines to the Farmington region backed out. “The natural gas company determined that there was not enough draw from the community to make an economically feasible project so they backed out,” said McKay.

Interestingly enough, some news articles stated the reverse, that UMF backed out of the agreement first and the natural gas company decided the project wouldn’t be feasible without the University on board. Physics Professor and attendee of some of the planning meetings, Paul Stancioff weighed in. “UMF was not responsible for that,” said Stancioff, explaining that somehow people had gotten this impression. “We were accused by some people of dragging our feet but that’s not really quite the way it went.” Foster also corroborated Stancioff and McKay’s statements asserting that it was only after the natural gas company reneged that the University considered different options.