Thanks to a $400,000 grant from the state Department of Commerce, the students at Northport School will no longer need to wear overcoats in class.
On Thursday afternoon, Commerce Director Lisa Brown toured the campus, which now features a wood pellet boiler heating system that uses biomass, or renewable low-value wood products.
“Commerce is all about strengthening communities, especially those in rural and underserved areas,” said Brown, who credited the “vision” of former state senator Bob Morton in supporting both local schools and the wood products industry.
The wood-fired heating system is the result of a collaboration with Washington State University’s Energy Program, the Department of Natural Resources and Oregon’s Wisewood Energy.
The project’s roots go back to the winter of 2016-17, when Northport Superintendent Don Baribault discovered the district needed a reliable, cost-effective replacement for the elementary school’s aging heating system.
Last year, Commerce awarded the $400,000 grant, which was made possible by legislation begun by Morton 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. Based on a detailed feasibility assessment by the WSU Energy Program that showed this project could significantly reduce the district’s 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.