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Hybrid willows harvested to fuel school

By Staff | Feb 7, 2014

n the furnace room at Hughesville High School, Facilities Director, Mike McClain, shows how the willow wood chips are ground through the auger as a built-in sensor allows the right amount to pass through to the boiler.

HUGHESVILLE – They came from all across the Mid-Atlantic on a very chilly arctic day to see East Lycoming School District. Some were from Delaware, Maryland, Syracuse, NY, and others in Pennsylvania from Hershey, Harrisburg, State College, Bloomsburg, Lebanon Valley, and Port Allegheny. These visitors representing various organizations from conservancies, schools, prisons, universities and hospitals wanted to know more about the Willow Crop Green Energy power producing program that was developed at the district in Hughesville 5 years ago.

A first ‘Willow for Energy Field Day Harvest Demonstration’ was set up for Tuesday morning, January 28 and sponsored in part with the NEWBio consortium, an outreach program of the College of Agricultural Sciences led by Penn State University.

The cold weather is usually a good time to cut the willows. The ground is frozen and allows the 200 horsepower precision-cutting machinery to do its job according to Michael Jacobson, Professor of Ecosystem Science and Management from Penn State University who thoroughly explained the process of producing willow for bio-energy. Biomass harvesters are made in Denmark, and the one being used at the district is on lease from the Penn State New Bio-Consortium. Many partners are involved with this project that is expanding to other areas in the state.

It started with an $8,000 grant through the PA Energy Development Authority and 40 acres of school property were used to plant the mass producing shrub willow hybrid as a source for biofuel. The crop is now established and ready to produce heat for the high school building. For the past 3 years 650 tons of green wood chips were burned per year and supplied through Lewis Lumber in Picture Rocks.

Michael Palko, a Biomass Energy Specialist with DCNR in Lycoming County explained that years of research involving several universities and government organizations were spent on building this biomass energy product before coming to this area. European governments have been using this alternative energy source since the ’70’s.

David L. Maciejewski, business manager for East Lycoming School District, points to the precision cutting machine behind the pile of willow wood chips that will be used for fuel in the high school's boiler room. Other organizations are now looking at this fast growing project for future use.

This week two rows of the 13 acre field expected for harvest were mowed down and piles of wood chips were loaded into the boiler for heat. Visitors toured the 168 acre property by bus stopping to see the growth of the bushes and the piles of wood chips ready for burning. Rows will be harvested every three years.

The wood chips provide heat for 170,000 square feet at the high school building from mid-October through mid April. The solar panels supplement with 700,000 kilowatts a year. 5 to 10 tons will be rotated every 3 years with a yield lasting up to 25 years, maybe more according to Jacobson. “We will be harvesting 10 to 12 acres at a time,” said Business Manager, David Maciejewski. “We do not want to get into a large storage operation. Planting 40 acres will meet one third of our heating needs.” Productivity will increase over the life cycle of the plant. “We are saving about $30,000 a year with willow.” Before the conversion, they relied on oil. “Now using greenwood chips cuts back on transportation and diesel fuel,” he added.

Cutting invigorates the sprouting so it is managed by doing single and double row harvests. “Leave the stumps, and 7 or 8 harvests will come from it,” said Jacobson. “After 25 years, it will be too dense. Then you start over.”

The benefits are maximum. “Willow has a value of $8,000 to the school,” Maciejewski said. “It is also a great nesting habitat for songbirds and other rare species of birds,” added Palko. A two acre patch of willows planted at Montour Preserve attracted lots of bees, always good pollinators, and produced willow honey.

He also noted that the buildings in the School District range in age from 1925 to 1970 and are energy EPA certified buildings. The two elementary schools are geo-thermal. “You do not need new buildings to be energy efficient,” Palko told the visitors. “Other districts are now looking at East Lycoming for this progressive thinking.”

Michael Jacobson from Penn State University's Ecosystem Science and Management department explains the benefits of burning willow hybrids for fuel energy. Behind him two rows were cut down last week to begin the first biomass harvest at East Lycoming School District.

“The entire project is part of an energy service company,” Palko said.

A tour of the boiler room revealed a clean environment with no ash, no dust, just very clean burning. 20 tons of wood chips are burned at a time. Facilities Director, Mike McClain described a hands-off efficient operation that doesn’t require a whole lot of human interaction. “The boiler is impressive,” said Diane Santo, school board member. She also pointed out the environmental benefits and clean energy efficiency to save costs. A built-in sensor determines how many wood chips to feed down a rotating auger that breaks down the chips even further for burning. “It is a very simple operation,” said McClain.

There has been a lot of interest in the facility. “We conduct a lot of tours. A lot of people like to see this since it started operating,” he added. “There is a lot of interest from other industries.”

Superintendent Michael Pawlik pointed out the financial and educational rewards in the community through the expanding field of green energy. Educational courses in alternative energy are now being offered at the school.