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Clarkson students extoll biomass heating efficiency

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POTSDAM — Wood pellets could heat up to 20 percent of Northern New York homes while boosting the north country economy, according to a group of Clarkson University students who have spent the past few months studying the renewable energy source.

Ten students took part in Clarkson’s Adirondack Semester, spending their entire semester living and studying in Saranac Lake. Their professors came to them, and they took regular forays into the Adirondacks.

They spent much of their time studying the use of biomass, particularly wood chips and wood pellets, in high-efficiency boilers.

The students presented their findings to the community on campus Wednesday.

They spoke with those who have already made the switch to wood-fired boilers, such as residents of Berlin, Vt., and the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. They spoke with producers and distributors, like Patrick J. Curran, CEO and president of Curran Renewable Energy, Massena, who delivers his product directly to homes and businesses. They visited the logging sites in the Adirondacks where trees are cut down, some of which are turned into pellets or wood chips.

They found that in the New York and New England region, about 7.9 million tons of biomass could be gathered sustainably every year without endangering the health of forests. That is enough to power up to 20 percent of homes in the region.

If an efficient boiler is used, wood pellets produce up to 20 times fewer emissions than propane or heating oil.

“We want to raise awareness of these systems, and to do that we need to build social momentum,” said Melissa Martinez, a high school senior from Queens who is part of a Clarkson program that allows high school students to begin their college education early.

Wood chips and pellets are often produced as a by-product of other industries, like paper milling. Plenty of power could be made without any risk to forests, the students determined. Fossil fuels would still be burned to harvest, produce and ship the pellets, but it would still cause significantly less pollution than simply using fossil fuels to heat homes.

There is the problem of cost. While wood pellets are significantly cheaper than heating oil or propane, installing an efficient boiler costs $15,000 to $20,000.

“These systems are not affordable for everyone,” Ms. Martinez said.

Many people use less-efficient wood-burning boilers, which can cause much more wasted heat and additional air pollution.

Those who receive their heat from natural gas lines have little to gain by switching to biomass, as that source remains less expensive.

The students suggested government initiatives, like tax credits, to promote the use of high-efficiency boilers in New York. Similar initiatives already exist in New Hampshire and Maine, and wood boilers are common in parts of Europe.

“New York state is behind. They need a better policy,” said sophomore Ryan J. Recchia, of Latham. “Without a better policy, it won’t work as well.”

The students also discussed the effect increased wood boiler use would have on the local economy. Instead of depending on fuel from out of state, the money spent to produce and ship wood pellets would all be kept within the state.

“It’s a homegrown energy source,” said sophomore Zoe J. Spindleman, of East Aurora.

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