FORT KENT, Maine – As the price of home heating oil in northern Maine flirts with $4 a gallon, it makes sense residents are looking for efficient, local and less expensive alternatives.

A $45,000 one-year planning grant was awarded to the Center for Rural Sustainable Development at UMFK by Maine EPSCoR to begin a three-year study on the effects of large-scale biomass energy resource development in the St. John Valley.

The grant, titled, “Biomass Energy Resources in the St. John Valley: Development Potential, Landscape Implications and Replication Possibilities,” is headed by Brian Kermath, the director of the rural sustainable development center, working with an interdisciplinary collection of UMFK faculty and community members.

Over the next three years the project will be supported by an additional $300,000 in NSF funds through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

Kermath attended the EPSCoR conference at the University of Maine last week to present the UMFK biomass project.

“We are situated in the middle of a huge woodland and agricultural basket,” Kermath said. “Fuel oil prices are spiking, and that creates a hardship for people heating their homes [and] that’s really hard on people living on fixed incomes.”

The study will examine the role large-scale biomass — everything from wood chips to wood pellets to grain-based fuels — could play in the area’s heating needs. The project also will work to gauge the level of the community’s interest and acceptance of biomass fuel.

“There’s a lot of talk these days about biomass in the news,” Kermath said. “What we want to find out is what is the total demand for the area to heat water, homes and businesses and what would it take to meet that demand with local sources.”

Kermath pointed out there are acres of fallow cropland in the St. John Valley now out of production and sporting solid growths of woody crops such as willow and poplar — two reliable sources of biomass fuel products.

“With imported fossil fuels becoming less secure and heating oil prices rising, locally grown, processed and distributed biomass fuels are becoming increasingly attractive,” he said. “Using locally sourced biomass fuels will be good for the local economy and better for the environment if sustainable practices are adopted.”

Those involved in the study will examine both forestry and agriculturally derived biomass fuels to determine whether community members favor one over the other, or both.

“We want to look at meeting the area’s needs with a local resource at a sustainable level,” Kermath said. “A big part of the project will be outreach into the community.”

Once the planning stage is over and the group receives its first-year funding of $100,000 in September, Kermath said, the work will focus on overall energy needs and available resources.

“We want to get a good snapshot of the theoretical situation,” he said.

In year two, the grant will fund studies on local energy consumer perceptions of biomass technology and landowners’ willingness to cultivate biomass-producing crops.

In the third and final year of the grant, members of the study group will work to get reliable biomass information out to the public and outline the biomass options.

“We want to really work with the community from the growers to the processor to the distributors to the consumers,” Kermath said. “This should benefit both the agriculture and forestry sectors.”

Working with Kermath on the grant project are UMFK faculty and staff Joseph Bjerklie, director of institutional research; Dr. Kim Borges-Therien, associate professor of environmental sciences; Dave Hobbins, professor of forestry and environmental sciences; Bruno Hicks, associate professor of education and environmental sciences; Kurt Holzhausen, associate professor of psychology; Soraya Cardenas, assistant professor of sociology; Rachel Albert, vice president of academic affairs; and Andrew Plant of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

In addition, the grant will fund several paid internships for UMFK students.

While he and his team move ahead with the biomass study, Kermath is awaiting word on two more energy-related grant applications. A $2.6 million grant application through the USDA would fund a complete transition of all university core buildings plus the neighboring Fort Kent Community High School from oil to biomass.

“This would potentially dispel 90 percent of the university’s oil consumption,” Kermath said.

A second grant for $500,000 is under review by the Maine Department of Conservation and would fund a similar transition for the university’s sports center and newest residence hall.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.