Scott Mackey, chair of the school board, said installing the wood chip boiler is not only good for the environment, it "makes sense for taxpayers," thanks in large part to a state cost-sharing program that runs through the end of the year.

The Vermont Department of Education contributes up to 90 percent of the cost to construct wood chip boilers if voters approve the projects by December 31.

After that time, the state contribution rate falls to 75 percent.

With construction of the facility at Harwood expected to cost roughly $1.68 million, the school stands to recoup about $1.51 million from the state. The remaining 10 percent of the cost, about $168,000, would be the school's responsibility.

Mackey said this debt could be paid off in a few years without "any net impact on the tax rate," by using the money saved in heating expenses-expected to be about $50,000 annually--to cover the local share of the capital cost.

"In many respects it's a no-brainer to do this project," said board member David Rapaport, citing a life cycle cost analysis completed by an engineering firm in August.

The analysis concluded that despite the initial capital expenditure for the wood chip system and maintenance costs that are expected to be about $1,600 higher per year, the cost difference between wood chips and fuel oil "is significant enough to offset the previous two items over the life of the project." 

If voters approve, plans calls for a 1,200-square-foot building to be constructed outside the maintenance receiving area on the east side of the school to house the wood chip heating system and chip storage.

The existing heating system would remain in place, although fuel oil would likely generate only about 15 percent of the school's energy needs in the future, according to the life cycle cost analysis.

Beyond the cost savings, Harwood officials say the project stands to "reduce dependence on foreign oil" and boost the local economy by sourcing fuel closer to home, namely from the forests of Vermont and New England.

Adam Sherman, project manager at the Biomass Energy Resource Center in Montpelier, said wood chip heating systems have been slowly gaining in popularity over the last 20 or so years, with the state's cost-sharing program expected to accelerate that trend.

The systems use a sustainable, renewable energy source, Sherman said, bucking the pattern of "exporting Vermont dollars out of state and out of country" to pay for fossil fuels.

As far as pollution goes, the technology has evolved beyond the days of pot-bellied stoves spewing particulates and ash, to the point where systems are fully automated and emissions are a "magnitude cleaner" than wood combustion systems from decades ago.

"They burn incredibly efficiently," Sherman said.

Although wood chip systems do emit more particulate matter than oil or gas plants, according to the BERC website, this can be managed by including a stack high enough to disperse the matter in the air. Burning wood also produces more carbon monoxide than oil, the BERC states.

On the flip side, compared to fuel oil systems, wood chip boilers emit one-sixth less sulfur oxide, the pollutant that causes acid rain. And as long as sustainable forestry practices are used, wood chip heating systems do not add an excess of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which helps to combat global warming.

Over 20 schools in Vermont already use wood chip heating systems, Sherman said, and at least four or five are currently under construction.

Another 12 to 15 districts have initiatives on the ballot for November in order to take advantage of the state's 90 percent contribution rate.

Harwood Union High School's current heating costs
--Fuel Source: Number two fuel oil
--Amount used per year: 45,000 gallons
--Cost of energy: About $99,000 per year (at $2.20 per gallon)

Expected heating costs with proposed wood chip boiler
--Fuel Source: 85 percent wood chips, 15 percent fuel oil
--Amount used per year: 525 tons of wood chips, 6,750 gallons of fuel oil
--Cost of energy: About $41,000 per year (at $50 per ton of wood chips & $2.20/gal heating oil )

*Figures come from the life cycle cost analysis commissioned by the school.