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Keeping Sisters Stoked: New biomass plant puts Sisters High School on the cutting edge 

Sister's biomass project gets the thumbs-up from Governor Kitzhaber.

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Last Monday was an up-and-away day for the Sisters School District. Oregon's Governor, Dr. John Kitzhaber, and first lady Cylvia Hayes were on hand to officially open a forest steward and biomass project that will pay off big for parents and students in Sisters High School: They're going to stay warm in winter the way our pioneers did - by burning wood.

A wood-burning stove doesn't sound like a master of efficiency, but when you get right down to the nitty-gritty of using today's technology, it is, and in more ways than one. The correct term for wood-burning heat in this magnitude is "biomass fuel" and the benefit of using this heating method is that it saves a lot of money for the school - which then goes directly into student education. That also leads to everything about the project being local, from biomass, boiler design, employment and back out into the forest.

It all begins with the Forest Service (USFS) and "stewardship projects," which supplies the wood to burn. Various stewardship projects throughout the Sisters District are designed to help a forest become - and remain - healthier; the healthier a forest, the more biodiversity and the less it is susceptible to wildfire. But to operate a true stewardship program in the forest, a lot of pieces of the biological, mechanical and economical puzzle have to fit together smoothly.


First, the area to be treated has to be studied thoroughly to understand what is going on, why the actions taking place within the forest are ecologically undesirable and what has to be done to correct them. Once that's accomplished, a contractor is retained to complete the work.

Most qualified contractors have equipment and operators who are trained to do the project within Forest Service (FS) protocols, which ultimately saves the FS a lot of money; they don't have to send personnel out on the ground to mark trees, brush and areas to be treated.

The material removed, made up of fallen trees and brush, is sold by the contractor to help bring in a little more profit, and thus kept from burning in trash piles that cause undue strain on air quality all around Sisters, where most residents, coughing and wheezing, have watched money going up in smoke all too often.

The trees not suitable for lumber are then chipped and taken to a local pellet factory. Pellets are delivered (sold) to the school where they are burned with the latest technology that will give the best bang for the buck - or put another way - generate the most heat with the least residue (ash).

For Sisters, this was accomplished by the local renewable energy firm of ENERGYneering Solutions, Inc. (ESI). Benny Benson, President of ESI, who has a daughter at the high school, was pondering the school budget, looking for ways to provide his daughter and other students with the best education possible. He soon hit on the idea of alternate energy as a method of saving money and heating the school. It will also reduce the carbon footprint put into the atmosphere by oil-fired heating units. What this boils down to is eliminating the consumption of 50,000 gallons of heating oil and replacing it with 250 tons of locally produced wood pellets.

"I assumed energy costs were a significant part of the school's annual budget," he said, "Any energy savings, or offset we could provide would go back to the kids through education." How right he was.

Sisters District Operations Director Leland Bliss knew Benny was right, and took another slant, "The cost of (fuel) oil is so unstable it's impossible to accurately estimate what the average price will be for a year.

"We would estimate high and we'd lock that funding up for the entire year to ensure we'd able lo keep the heat on. Now the school district has a solid figure for wood pellets."

This a figure they can, figuratively, "take to the bank," with a fuel savings anywhere from $35,000 to $65,000 per year.

ESI studied the alternatives down to a gnats eyebrow and found solar and wind didn't provide short paybacks or significant cost savings because electricity is priced so low in Sisters. ESI also researched other biomass heating systems - such as the one in operation in the Burns high school. From that research, Benny said, "We discovered what things worked, and didn't work, resulting in the SHS system being the best technology of the day."

Sisters school superintendent Jim Golden applauded the research and efforts ENERGYneering Solutions used that resulted in designing and bridling the biomass project. He said it has helped - and will continue to help our local community - from forest health to school budgetary health and on to better student education.

SHS staff are looking forward to linking the school's on-going Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition (IEE) course with the FS stewardship projects as a way of introducing students to career opportunities. IEE is composed of a community of learners working together to gain a balanced, in-depth understanding of the world around them. The SHS biomass project could take them a long way toward understanding forest ecosystems, engineering and economics.

By the time Governor Kitzhaber and Hayes had inspected all facets of the biomass project for SHS, they were ready to give a thumbs-up for all the local effort that has gone into the project, and anticipated returns.


See Jim on OPB!

Regular readers of the Natural World are encouraged to tune into OPB's Oregon Field Guide this week when longtime Source contributor and all around wonderful person, Jim Anderson, is profiled. Producer Ed Jahn honors Jim for his many wonderful contributions to Oregon wildlife preservation and his legacy of stewardship that will endure for generations to come. Fittingly, the program also features a piece on bald eagle recovery, one of Jim's longtime passions. Episode 2304 airs Thursday night on KOAB at 8:30 p.m. local time.

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