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Mount Wachusett fires up green machines, green power sources.

Byline: Karen Nugent

Was it prophetic that Mount Wachusett Community College was built on Green Street?

Long before phrases such as carbon footprint, going green and global warming became hip, the Gardner college had embarked on a mission to be more energy efficient. Not to be trendy - but to save money on a budget that was being cut by the state each year, according to college President Daniel M. Asquino.

It worked.

And then, Mr. Asquino said, things just seemed to evolve since the 1990s as college officials began coming up with other means of saving energy.

The 45-year-old college has since received national and international recognition as one of the top green campuses in the country. It was recently featured in a National Wildlife Federation publication showcasing school leaders in sustainable energy. MWCC is named in the 63-page report as one of four institutions that has reduced greenhouse gas emissions substantially.

Representatives from seven countries have visited, and Edward R. Terceiro Jr., the college's executive vice president and resident engineer, was part of a U.S. delegation to Germany in December studying that nation's renewable energy technology.

The college sits on a hill off Route 140 not far from Winchendon. When it rains in Worcester or Boston, it usually snows in Gardner.

When the college was built in the 1970s - during the last big energy crisis - the thinking at the time was to go all-electric for power and heat as a way of cutting costs. But that turned out to be the wrong trend. Mr. Asquino said the heating and power bills soared higher each year, and the budget kept dwindling.

"There were tough choices to be made, like cutting programs and people," he said.

Describing what happened next as serendipitous, Mr. Asquino said he remembers a discussion with state representatives and other officials about alternative energy.

"Someone mentioned wood chips. There was silence in the room," Mr. Asquino said with a smile.

But the discussion generated enough interest to get $1 million in federal funds, with the help of U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, to convert the electrical heating system to a biomass heating system - really a giant wood stove, Mr. Asquino said - that uses leftover wood chips from Massachusetts trees cut in New Hampshire saw mills. The project cost $4.3 million. Along with the federal grant, a $750,000 state grant and rebates from what was then Massachusetts Electric Co., the college got a $1.8 million loan over 10 years, paying the cost of borrowing with money from energy savings.

Besides a cumulative savings of $2.7 million since the conversion in 2002, the heating system has reduced electricity use by 38 percent, water use by 52 percent, and cut the college's carbon footprint - that term again - by 22.5 percent.

"The payback has been enormous," Mr. Asquino said.

While the biomass furnace looks like an old wood-burning model, the system has some high-tech aspects.

Mr. Terceiro, a member of the American Council on Renewable Energy's Higher Education Committee, said the system monitors the 450,000-square-foot main building, room by room, via computers.

"If the president's office is cold, and I'm off-site somewhere, I can increase the temperature with a computer," he said.

But they didn't stop there.

With Mr. Terceiro's expertise and obvious enthusiasm for engineering and science, the college also installed a biomass gasification system, which produces both heat and electric power for lights, computers and other utilities. The project was funded with a $1 million federal grant that required a $1 million match, with most coming from in-kind services.

And there are plans to install new solar energy panels this spring, to replace the campus' 30-year-old solar panels, along with one, and possibly two, large-scale wind turbines later this year.

Since 2002, Mount Wachusett Community College has received more than $5 million in federal and state grants, and some private support.

The gasification system also uses wood chips, but they are smaller and drier than those used in the older furnace, Mr. Terceiro said. It works through pyrolysis, a reaction obtained by heating and breaking down the chips in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere that produces gases used as a fuel source for generating electricity."Like an internal combustion engine," the former physics teacher said. "It's a very clean process. It's not fossil fuel, so it doesn't produce acid rain or contribute to global warming."

Accumulation from the process - two types of ash - is slurried to create a material used like lime at the college's greenhouse, in its compositing pile and on the lawns.The scientific theory for the system is not new.

It was first used about 180 years ago by farmers with blast furnaces who converted wastes from organic feed. Paper, railroad ties, and old pallets can also be fed into a gasifier. Their use declined after World War II, when cheap fossil fuels became more available.

The college's updated version, Mr. Terceiro said, can be taken on the road to provide emergency power, for example, during natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.

Installation of the new solar panels - now called a photovoltaic solar array - will require that a white, reflective roof be put on the main campus building. The new panels, partially funded with a $530,000 grant from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust and a no-interest $331,000 loan from the Internal Revenue Service, are expected to generate more than 100 kilowatt hours, Mr. Terceiro said.

That will satisfy only a small fraction of the 6 million kilowatt hours of electricity the college uses each year, said Mr. Terceiro. But along with the other green systems and wind power the college hopes to tap, renewable sources will generate about 55 percent of total electricity, he said. These systems also represent potential revenue streams from the sale of power and of renewable energy credits.

The college is on a waiting list for two 1.65-megawatt wind turbines and, in anticipation of their arrival, a meteorological tower has been set up to measure winds speeds and other data.

The green efforts are not lost on students.

Mount Wachusett, with an eye toward turning out young people looking for "green-collar" jobs, offers four courses in renewable energy and hopes to offer a major for an associate's degree in that field. Mr. Asquino said natural resources are touched on in courses in all curriculums, and the subject is included in core requirements.

Heidi Kowalski, 28, a 1999 MWCC graduate, has returned to take some renewable energy courses for transfer credits toward a career in recycling or environmental engineering. She is impressed with the biomass systems and the ongoing green efforts.

"It means a lot to me personally. The greenhouse and the panels were here when I was a student before. You could see the panels - you knew they were there. Now with the biomass, and knowing how the process works, it just gives the whole campus more environmental awareness," she said.

A member of the college's Green Society, which, among other things, sells compact fluorescent light bulbs, Ms. Kowalski also works with a faculty and staff environmental committee on recycling.

She pointed out that Mount Wachusett's fees have not increased as much as fees at other colleges because of the energy savings.

"It's not oil heat. Other fees are through the roof. It's made me much more aware of how green this college is compared to others," she said.

Contact Karen Nugent by e-mail at knugent@telegram.com.

Making green from going green

Mount Wachusett Community College's savings since 2002 from its biomass heating plant

Dollars: $2.7 million

Electricity: 25,330,119 kilowatt hours

Water: 13,333,332 gallons

2007 savings: $335,310 (exceeded anticipated savings by $64,484)

CO2 emissions: Reduced by 10,992 tons

Nitrous oxide emissions: Reduced by 17.9 tons

Sulfur dioxide emissions: Reduced by 47.2 tons

Reduced emissions: The three emissions reductions are combined and are equivalent to planting 3,012 acres of trees, and removing 1,920 cars from the roads

Source: Edward R. Terceiro Jr., resident engineer and executive vice president, Mt. Wachusett Community College

T&G Staff

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Mount Wachusett Community College uses a biomass heating system fueled by wood chips. (3) Mount Wachusett Community College's Edward R. Terceiro Jr., left, executive vice president and resident engineer, and college President Daniel M. Asquino stand in front of the biomass heating plant that has saved $2.7 million since 2002.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/RICK CINCLAIR
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 14, 2008
Words:1418
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