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Grafton County Opens Woodchip-Burning Plant to Heat Offices, Courthouse

Grafton County maintenance worker Dennis McLam, left, explains the process for converting woodchips into energy to Joe Button, of Bradford, Vt., during the opening of the new biomass energy building at the Grafton County Complex in North Haverhill yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Grafton County maintenance worker Dennis McLam, left, explains the process for converting woodchips into energy to Joe Button, of Bradford, Vt., during the opening of the new biomass energy building at the Grafton County Complex in North Haverhill yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

North Haverhill — In the Upper Valley, “buy local” and “eat local” are common mantras for boosters of the “localvore” movement.

Now, with the unveiling of a woodchip-burning plant at the county complex in North Haverhill, Grafton County residents can add the label of “burn local” to the county-economy mantle.

The biomass plant, which was officially opened yesterday, will generate nearly $200,000 in cost savings in the next fiscal year compared to the oil-powered heating furnaces that it has replaced. Additionally, all of the woodchips that power the plant will come from within the county.

“This is, I think, government working at its very best,” Grafton County Commissioner Mike Cryans, a Hanover Democrat, said yesterday in a speech before the plant’s ribbon-cutting.

The biomass plant will be used to heat the county’s administrative offices, nursing home, courthouse, and will supply domestic hot water to the county jail, all on the 757-acre North Haverhill campus.

The Grafton County jail also uses geothermal energy to heat and cool the building.

That leaves only a handful of structures at the complex reliant on typical fossil-fuel energy furnaces, most of them farm maintenance buildings.

The biomass plant came at a $2.7 million cost, which was paid for by leftover bond money for the new county jail building, which came in at less than anticipated. The plant will allow the county to reduce its fuel oil usage from 90,000 gallons to 9,000 gallons annually, and is estimated to lead to a cost savings of $194,500 in fiscal year 2014.

According to Democratic Grafton County Commissioner Martha Richards, who is credited with spearheading the charge for the biomass plant, taxpayers have been contributing $600,000 annually to heat all the buildings on the county complex campus.

After the ribbon cutting, Richards described herself as “absolutely thrilled” that the effort five years in the making had finally come to fruition.

“I would love to think that we’re kind of an icon here in the county and this would encourage other big businesses and buildings to consider a wood project,” said Richards.

Cryans said that the Littleton Police Department, the Glencliff Home in Warren, and both the Lebanon and Hanover school districts have installed biomass heating furnaces in recent years.

“They’re starting to catch on,” he said. “I would have never believed when they first started talking about it that it actually looks as nice as it does.”

The biomass plant is located in a relatively small red building with a two-bay loading garage and a large conveyer belt that transports the woodchips up to the furnace, which is equipped with a “scrubber” that controls air pollution.

Dennis McLam, a member of the maintenance crew in charge of the plant, said that the furnace produces a 50-gallon bucket’s worth of ash weekly, but “hardly any smoke if it’s burning right.”

McLam estimated that the plant could consume anywhere from 20 to 40 tons of woodchips weekly.

Gil Richardson, a New Hampshire-based energy auditor and member of the volunteer commission that pushed for the plant, estimated that 20 tons of woodchips translated to about one day’s worth of labor for a logger.

“It’s not a huge job creator, or what have you, but again, those dollars are staying in the county,” Richardson said. “Not getting shipped off out-of-state or out-of-country.”

State Rep. Linda Lauer, a Bath Democrat who also represents Piermont and Orford, said after the ribbon-cutting that she was “so pleased to see this go online for the county.

“Aside from fuel savings, it means that the jobs will come from New Hampshire, not from overseas,” Lauer said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.