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Biomass plant receives overwhelming voter approval



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Jim Lucy of Honeywell presents a brief overview of a proposed biomass plant and energy upgrades for the Winnisquam Regional School District before voters took to the polls for a warrant article on whether or not to accept ARRA funds for the project. Donna Rhodes. (click for larger version)
September 16, 2009
TILTON — About a year after the Winnisquam School Board started looking into building a biomass heating plant at the middle and high school, and after countless hours of research and discussion, district voters overwhelmingly approved the energy-efficient project at a special meeting last week.

A special meeting of the Winnisquam School Board, followed by a public hearing and vote by residents from Tilton, Northfield and Sanbornton on Sept. 10, was held for the acceptance of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. The funds were designated for the biomass heating plant and other energy updates to the district's schools and administrative buildings.

Working with plans from Honeywell, Banwell Architects designed the biomass plant to be built on land adjacent to the Voc-Ag building on the high school grounds. The School Board initially put aside a proposal to build the plant because of cost and a lack of time to study the matter further prior to the annual meeting in March.

Stimulus fund availability through Qualified School Construction Bonds brought them to a second look at the project, however, and an hour before the special district meeting, they unanimously voted to accept the funds and present the matter to voters.

Board Chair Mike Gagne told district residents during the public hearing that rejection of the stimulus money would mean that the funds would go to another school district and not be available to them again. He felt it was important to consider the project as one of savings for taxpayers.

"I'd like to focus our attention to cash flow," he told the voters. "We couldn't bring forward a project that wasn't more cash flow positive."

Jim Lucy of Honeywell said that the $3,550,000 bond would pay for construction and upgrades that would bring the district a 15-year positive cash flow, through state building aid, utility rebates and ARRA monies, of $1,211,102. Reducing energy costs in the buildings of Winnisquam Regional School District would bring ultimate savings to the taxpayers, reduce operating costs and improve the overall structures. Improvements in lighting, boiler replacement and upgrades in some of the schools, replacing the roof of the agricultural building and other energy efficient repairs would all be included in the project. A dual system for the boilers would be installed so the district could switch between natural gas and heating oil, whichever is cheaper from year to year.

A question arose over manpower needed to maintain the biomass plant and whether or not money for an employee to operate the plant was included. Lucy deferred to Neil Barry of the Merrimack Valley School District, which has a biomass plant already in operation. Barry is plant manager for MVSD and said Merrimack does not employee any one person for the task.

"I'm not a mechanic and I manage it myself," he told voters. "I do the ash cleaning, which is a five minute job, and there's about 15 minutes a day that I take notes and fill out state forms. It's a minimal amount of time."

Weekends, he said, call for less load on the system and therefore no one needs to attend to the boiler.

Polls then opened to vote on the warrant article for acceptance of the $3.5 million and to also appropriate the use of $50,000 from interest on the bond proceeds along with $96,760 to be withdrawn from the Building Renovation and Repair Capital Reserve to provide matching funds for the projects. Balloting remained open for an hour and five minutes before the votes were tallied. Moderator Ken Randall then announced that the warrant article, which required a two-thirds majority to pass, had handily exceeded that requirement with a 96.6 percent favorable vote. He said 137 votes had been cast; six no votes were received while 131 voted yes on the article.

Longtime proponent for the project, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton, was surrounded by congratulatory supporters after the announcement. Raymond's reaction to the passage of the article was a loud "Whooo-Hoooo!" as he hugged his wife and friends.

The district will now work with Honeywell in securing permits and all other necessary contracts to begin construction and the approved upgrades within the buildings and schools.

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