Turning up the heat

Keene State College Physical Plant employee David Weeks works with one of the boilers that provides heat to buildings on campus.

After decades of relying on No. 6 fuel oil to heat most of the campus’ buildings, Keene State College officials are experimenting with an environmentally-friendly alternative they hope will eventually replace the polluting fossil fuel.

This year, the college entered into a contract to receive shipments of purified waste vegetable oil biofuel from a Boston-based firm that manufactures the product, Campus Sustainability Director Cary H. Gaunt said.

The college received its first delivery of the biofuel, which burns at a similar temperature as No. 6 fuel oil but is much cleaner, this summer, she said.

An upfront cost was incurred to make a few minor conversions to heating equipment, but it was nominal, she said. The cost of the biofuel is competitive with the No. 6 fuel oil, partly because of state and federal renewable energy credits available for using the product, Gaunt said.

“It’s extremely exciting because when you read articles in the press, people say we can’t get off fossil fuels because it’s so ingrained in our society,” Gaunt said. “Keene State and any institutions like it that have historically burned oil now have this viable transition fuel.”

The company making the biofuel gathers the waste vegetable oil from across New England. Eventually the plan is for the company to take Keene State’s used cooking oil, too, she said.

Keene State has often historically been ahead of the curb when it comes to environmental initiatives. While most of its buildings are on a steam heating system, some of the older residence halls are on electric heat, Gaunt said. The campus’ newest building, a residence hall called a living and learning community, is heated and cooled with geothermal technology with electric heat pumps.

In 2007, the college was one of the first to sign the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. The intention of the document, which is now called the Carbon Commitment, is to create a network of college and universities seeking to lessen their greenhouse gas emissions, and accelerate research and educational efforts aimed at combating global climate change and preparing to be resilient to it.

Once Keene State’s heating system was ready to burn the biofuel, the college was able to meet its heat and hot water demands for the remainder of July and all of August, Gaunt said.

In the meantime, college officials have learned through their own research that Keene State is the first college or university in the country to heat using the purified waste vegetable oil biofuel, she said.

The purified waste vegetable oil is carbon neutral, and once cold weather sets in it will account for 36 percent of the heat used by buildings on the campus heating system, she said.

“We want to do a full test year, and if everything continues to go well with the product we’ll bump up how much of it we use,” she said.

Increasing the percentage of the biofuel used in the college’s heating system would probably be done over a period of two to three years, she said. Her personal goal would be to eventually have it account for 100 percent of the institution’s heat load, Gaunt said.

However, college officials are interested in creating a resilient heating system that can still function if something happens to the biofuel supply chain, she said. That will likely mean the heating plant continuing to have a boiler capable of burning fuel oil, she said.

“We’re really committed — the campus as a whole — to achieving our sustainability goals. But we were never going to get there if we continued to burn No. 6 fuel oil,” she said. “It’s probably one of the most polluting fossil fuels.”

Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or mfoley@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.