The WVO Co-generator will be installed outside of the Grand County High School to cut peak electric use. (photo courtesy of TRANE) 

The Grand County School District has found a way to leverage tourism for a biomass energy project that is the first of its kind in the U.S. and will save the district about district $20,000 a year. To mitigate monthly electric bills that can run as high as $70,000 during the summer months. The school district is turning to an alternative energy option that runs off of waste vegetable oil (WVO), school board member Jim Webster said.

A 60-watt co-generation system, consisting of five motors that will run off of WVO, will be installed at the high school. The high school’s existing heating and cooling system will control the co-generator, which will be set to take over cooling before energy peaks occur. Captured heat will be used to heat water in the showers and for heating the building.

“I am very excited about this project,” school district superintendent Scott Crane said. “I believe that it will reduce the electricity cost for the district and help the community eliminate waste oil in an environmentally positive fashion. I see this as a win-win for the community.”

The district originally looked at expanding an existing solar system already installed at Helen M. Knight Elementary School and the high school. However, after contracting with a consultant from the global energy service company Trane to study the feasibility and cost, solar was deemed too expensive, Grand County School District business administrator Robert Farnsworth said.

Nor would solar resolve the energy-spike issues that create large electric bills, Trane energy consultant Eric Thatcher said in his presentation to the school board in February.

Energy charges are determined, not only by the kilowatts of energy used, but also by the rate at which those kilowatts are used, which is measured every 15 minutes, according to Rocky Mountain Power’s Web site. The highest peak of use during a month is what determines the monthly charge. These peaks in demand are usually associated with equipment start up, like air-conditioners turning on.

“A co-generation machine can start and stop as we want it to—pre spike,” Thatcher said.

A co-gen, as they’re often referred to in the industry, is an efficient power-generation system that produces both electricity and heat from a single fuel source, usually natural gas. The system can also be installed right next to the building it powers so there is no loss of energy in transmission. This type of engineering makes the co-gen 90-percent efficient, compared to a power plant that loses 60 percent of its energy units as un-captured heat, and then loses 10-to-50-percent of the remaining units in transmission from the plant to the customer, depending on the region, Thatcher said.

Because both the district and Trane were committed to alternative energy, however, they wanted an alternative to natural gas, a challenge to the project.

“The problem is when you look around Moab there’s not a lot of biomass, no forests or coconut plants or things like that,” Thatcher said. “We were all scratching our heads and that’s when someone said ‘well the one thing they do have is tourism. Is there a way to leverage that?’ And then that’s the way the waste oil idea popped up.”

Trane consultants immediately began searching for examples of existing co-generators that run on WVO—particularly so they could prove to the companies involved and potential financial donors that the project was credible.

“We couldn’t find anyone in the U.S. that did anything close to this,” Thatcher said. “The only thing we could find was there are some, sort of backyard mechanics that will convert their diesel trucks to run on vegetable oil.”

They eventually found an example in Europe and are now working with the Belgian company Cogen Green, who will manufacture the school district’s co-gen unit and train the staff who will run and maintain it.

To collect the WVO, the district will distribute and manage between 50 and 75 55-gallon drums at local restaurants. A district employee will spend an estimated 10 hours per week collecting oil and exchanging drums, Thatcher said.

The price tag for this initial system is about $560,000, Farnsworth said. A $125,000 grant from Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky Program and a matching donation from a local philanthropist have made the project a reality.

“I do lots of energy projects, but cool ones like this are only ever possible when someone who really loves the environment gives it that early financial momentum,” Thatcher said. “If I ever had the opportunity to meet this donor I would give them a big hug.”

The district has several soft commitments of donations and continues looking into funding sources, Farnsworth said. “But the potential savings would pay fairly quickly what we’d have left owing on it.”

A pending educational-focused EPA grant for $200,000 that will be awarded in June would enable the district to create a curriculum around renewable energy and to hire and train a full-time instructor, Farnsworth said.

Thatcher said there are three ways in which the project will provide educational opportunities. Interactive data from the co-gen can be used in k-12 STEM curriculum to show how much WVO is collected and how it is being used to power the building in real time. Also, the maintenance can be performed by instructor-supervised students as part of vocational training through the auto shop.

The third opportunity comes from the community’s demonstration of environmental stewardship through action, Thatcher said.

“When a student who has participated in the educational activities provided by this project grows up and opportunities for renewable-energy projects are presented, he or she will be the first to stand up and declare that it can be done,” Thatcher said.

The high school was chosen for the co-gen because it showed higher peak energy use rates than other district buildings, Thatcher said. Ultimately, to provide for the high school’s energy needs, Trane envisions up to three co-gen units at the high school producing 400 kilowatts.

After installation of the 60-kilowatt system, the district will continue to track and study the project for a year, “then we’ll do another feasibility study in a year on what an additional motor will do. If it makes sense, we’ll hit the bushes again for more donations,” Farnsworth said.

The school board has authorized the project to proceed into the remaining engineering phase. After a final review in two months, construction will begin. The co-gen unit will be completed toward the end of 2014.

“We need more biomass projects like this one in communities all over the world,” Thatcher said. “Individually, they only make a small dent, but collectively these creative ways of incorporating renewable fuel sources become just how it is we change the way humans affect the planet we all live on.”

Alternative energy system expected to save about $20,000 per year

The 60Kw co-generator will run off of 5 Kabota diesel engines and use about 10 gallons of waste vegetable oil per hour. The noise produced will be about the same as a washing machine.

“The problem is when you look around Moab there’s not a lot of biomass, no forests or coconut plants or things like that. We were all scratching our heads and that’s when someone said ‘well the one thing they do have is tourism. Is there a way to leverage that?’ And then that’s the way the waste oil idea popped up.”