Why We Did It

Maine’s Millinocket Regional Hospital is the first hospital in Maine. to bring on line a wood pellet-fired heating system.
By Anna Simet | July 01, 2013

Dale McLaughlin has served as director of plant operations at Millinocket Regional Hospital for 15 years. During that time, he has continually researched and pursued different heating options that might be a good fit for the facility, with the ultimate goal of replacing its use of expensive No. 2 heating oil that so many homes and businesses in the Northeast U.S. are reliant upon.

Besides nixing heating oil, McLaughlin’s endeavors were driven by a couple of additional motivators—the desire to keep dollars spent on fuel at home, and to switch to something more environmentally sound. MRH CEO Marie Vienneau paints a picture of McLaughlin as someone who is not only an extremely competent and seasoned plant operations director, but is also really looking out for the best interests of the hospital. “Dale has been very proactive in exploring other types of energy,” she says. “We’ve wanted to reduce our oil use for cost reasons, but for those other reasons as well, and he’s been at it for many years.”

Like McLaughlin, Vienneau has a long history at MRH, as she initially began working there in 1990 as a registered nurse. She assumed the position of CEO a few years later, which she has held for over a decade. When discussing their recent accomplishment of bringing on line a wood pellet-fired heating system, both McLaughlin and Vienneau exude pride, not only because it’s the first to come on line in a U.S. hospital, but because of all that will be achieved as a result.

Exploring Options

When the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act made Wood-2-Energy grants available through the USDA Forest Service, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for MRH. “We live in the middle of America’s wood basket, so when this money became available, we decided to pursue it,” says Vienneau, adding that it covered half of the cost of the half million dollar project.

The ARRA grants totaled $11 million, used to convert 37 buildings from oil to wood heat. In all, the projects will annually displace more than 900,000 gallons of fuel oil, according to Peter Beringer of the Maine Forest Service.  The project at MRH is predicted to displace nearly 80,000 gallons of fuel annually, saving the 70,000-square-foot facility $149,000 each year. How well the system actually performs will be tracked and compared to the projections, Beringer explains. “One of the requirements of this project is a five-year fuel consumption reporting requirement. At the end of five years, we will be able to determine how accurate the estimates were and be able to have solid fuel data to help other potential conversion projects to make informed decisions.”

Once the grants were awarded and the Swiss Schmid Energy Solutions-supplied boiler arrived in the U.S., Washington-based Northline Energy began the installation. It took about three months to finish, according to McLaughlin, and getting it done smoothly in a busy hospital setting wasn’t a problem. “It was pretty seamless,” he says. “We already had the valves needed for the biomass boiler in place, so there was no shut-down time.”   

The 700-kilowatt, 2,200 MMBtu/hour low pressure steam boiler went live Dec. 7, and will annually consume 665 tons of wood pellets.  Athens, Maine-based supplier Maine Wood Pellets is delivering fuel pellets to MHR, which are being stored in a 36-ton silo that sits outside the building. On how often deliveries are required, McLaughlin said one every two weeks during the coldest part of the winter season.

Plant operation staff is on during the day, but just on call at night. “It can be monitored from anywhere you have access to the Internet,” McLaughlin explains. “To do a hard reset you have to be there physically, but otherwise it can be operated remotely. It’s a real basic design.”

Via an automated system, ash produced on the back end of the system—a very minimal amount—is sent into a barrel on wheels that fits onto a regular-sized pallet. Since installation, the barrel has only had to be emptied four times, according to McLaughlin.

If the MRH had paid the full $5 million price tag, a return on investment would be expected in about five years. Thanks to the Wood-2-Energy Program grant of $258,978, it’ll be achieved in 2.5 years. McLaughlin’s meticulous fuel cost calculations indicate that from the startup date to March 1, about $75,000 was saved.  “We also like the fact that the money is being spent on wood pellets,” he adds. “It’s still in the U.S. and, even better yet, here in our area.”

Vienneau adds that the region needs any help it can get economically, as its once booming paper industry is depressed. “Anything that can be done for wood workers to find other customers for their goods is a good thing [for the region’s economy],” she says. 

MRH, as well as Northern Maine Medical Center, which brought a pellet heating system on line shortly after MRH, will now serve as an example to other hospitals or institutions in the area looking to switch fuels. And there are many mulling it over, Vienneau says. “A lot of hospitals are looking at alternative energy sources…several in our area are going to natural gas, which is cheaper than oil, but not as cost effective as pellets right now.”

As for advice for those evaluating wood pellets, McLaughlin says he advises them to contact MRH directly with any questions. “It’s not a huge transition,” he says. “And it’s just a win-win to us and the local community.”

MRH hopes to eventually expand the system to be able to use it year-round. Vinneau adds that over 10 years, the hospital is projecting to save nearly $2 million. “That $2 million can go directly toward improving our hospital through the expansion of services, job creation or even upgrading equipment.”

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Biomass Magazine