Wood pellet heat proves smart cost-saving move for Northport School

Commerce grant awarded innovation in small, rural Northeast community   

OLYMPIA, WA – When Don Baribault, superintendent of the Northport School District in Stevens County, discovered one wintry day in 2017 that the elementary school’s aging heating system was failing, he needed a new solution that would be reliable, long lasting and not break the bank. The Department of Commerce, and others, stepped up to help keep the heat on.

Commerce Director Dr. Lisa Brown today toured the school campus that now features a wood pellet boiler heating system that uses biomass, or renewable low-value wood products. The wood-fired heating system is the result of an innovative collaboration with Washington State University’s (WSU) Energy Program, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Oregon’s Wisewood Energy.

“Commerce is all about strengthening communities, especially those in rural and underserved areas,” said Dr. Lisa Brown, Commerce director. “This project began with the vision of the late Sen. Bob Morton as a way to support local schools and the wood products industry. Today we celebrate that vision and continue that work with Sen. Shelly Short and other education and community leaders.”

Last year, Commerce awarded a $400,000 grant to the school district to pay for the installation of the heating system. The grant was made possible through legislation Sen. Bob Morton of Orient, Wash. championed in 2012. The legislation was designed to help the regional forest products industry by adding value to low-grade wood waste. The bill directed WSU Energy to study ways that densified biomass (in this case, wood pellets) could be used to heat homes, businesses and other facilities. The next year, Commerce received $500,000 to help two schools (one east of the Cascades and one west) cover the cost of switching to wood fuel.

Northport emerged as a possible candidate. Commerce had previously supported a similar project for the Quillayute Valley School District in Forks. Based on a detailed feasibility assessment by the WSU Energy Program that showed this project could significantly reduce the district heating costs, Northport applied for and won the grant, and was able to pay for the new system almost entirely with grant funds.

The project is already paying off, Baribault said. After the first three months of operation, the new system had cut fuel costs in half and air pollutants by 70%.

“Replacing one of our aging heating oil boilers with wood pellets last fall saved the district over $10,000 during the first year of operation,” Baribault said.

The school retains one of the heating oil boilers to supplement the wood pellets. Rob Mawdsley, operations manager for the school district, said having both systems means greater efficiency and resilience in case of a natural disaster or other interruption in fuel supplies.

“Based on screening schools across Washington, Northport appeared among the most suitable sites for converting from oil heat to densified biomass,” said David Van Holde, senior energy engineer with the WSU Energy Program. “More importantly, the engagement and support by the superintendent and school board throughout the process ensured the project’s success.”

Wisewood Energy, an Oregon-based company, developed, designed and built the biomass system, which included installing a storage silo for pellets, an auger to fill the silo and an automated hopper that feeds the fire.

Washington state DNR is working with partners to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk in northeast Washington. Wood pellet heating systems, such as the one at Northport, provide a market for biomass. The heating system utilizes the by-products of forest health treatments, providing a win-win for the forest and local economy.

This week marks the first day of autumn, and the 170 K-12 students at Northport School now can learn in a more comfortable environment without having to wear overcoats in their classrooms.


Barbara Dunn, Commerce Communications, 360-481-3320

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