FORT KENT, Maine — Thanks to funding secured through USDA Rural Development, Northern Maine Medical Center will produce cleaner, more cost-efficient heat by year’s end.

The $3.6 million federal loan, coupled with a $750,000 grant from the Maine Forest Service, is funding construction, purchase and installation of a state-of-the art biomass furnace at the hospital.

The new furnace replaces three antiquated boilers and, according to hospital officials, will result in $200,000 in heating cost savings annually over the next two decades.

“This project does not only introduce a renewable energy source, [it] allows Northern Maine Medical Center’s heat plant to come into compliance,” Peter Sirois, NMMC interim chief executive officer, said during a press conference Thursday afternoon. “We are replacing our existing heat plant [and] our oldest boiler being from 1950 when the hospital was first built.”

USDA Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager participated in the announcement from Bangor with representatives of Eastern Maine Medical Center through videoconferencing technology.

“It’s great to see a project like this in Fort Kent,” Tonsager said. “Projects like this are essential for small towns in rural areas to spur growth and attract jobs.”

The USDA also provided an additional $3.1 million in funding, allowing NMMC to refinance its existing loan portfolio.

“In these trying economic times, Northern Maine Medical Center is no different as we look for new avenues to contain or lower our costs,” Sirois said.

In addition to providing the hospital with a less expensive and renewable source of heat, the biomass construction project will provide 30 full-time jobs in addition to a viable local market for wood chips.

Also while in Bangor, Tonsager announced nearly $810,000 in distance learning and telemedicine grants for a Hancock County school system and a health care organization based in central Maine.

Tonsager said that the two grants were among more than 50 being distributed Wednesday in 29 states.

Regional School Unit 24, which includes 12 communities in Hancock County, has been awarded $499,967 for the purchase of distance learning equipment — including videoconferencing units, cameras, monitors, computers and video-enabling software.

The equipment will be used to create a comprehensive educational network for students — both children and adults — in Maine and Vermont. The network will offer live and rebroadcasted instruction, including medical courses for health care students and others.

Eleven thousand rural residents of Maine’s Aroostook, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington counties, as well as in Windsor and Windham counties in southern Vermont, stand to benefit from the educational and professional training opportunities, according to the USDA.

• Lewiston-based Central Maine Healthcare Corp. received $309,619 for the purchase of videoconferencing and related equipment for a telemedicine project serving people in a five-county area in central, western and coastal Maine that has high rates of chronic disease. The system will help medical professionals better manage and treat chronic disease in such rural communities as Fryeburg, Rumford, Bridgton, Farmington and Skowhegan.

The same telemedicine system will be used to offer courses leading to degrees in nursing and radiologic technology and to support a family medicine residency program.

After the teleconference, Tonsager and his entourage toured EMMC’s Critical Care Connection Unit, where medical professionals are able to manage the care of 50 to 60 seriously ill patients a day, some of them patients at EMMC and others as far away as Blue Hill, Presque Isle and Mount Desert Island.

Back in Fort Kent, construction on the new heat plant at NMMC is slated to begin within the next couple of weeks and represents the end to 13 years of research and planning.

“The first to have this vision was [NMMC Director of Facilities] Joey Bard back in the late 1990s,” Sirois said. “He saw that biomass conversion was the way to reduce our carbon footprint and lower energy costs.”

At the time, Bard said, funding problems and the availability of cheap No. 6 heating oil did not make the project feasible.

“No. 6 heating oil is equivalent to driveway sealer,” Bard said. “You actually need to heat it to get it to flow through the pipes.”

NMMC uses about 100,000 gallons of No. 6 heating oil annually and Bard said the once inexpensive fuel steadily has risen in cost.

The price of No. 6 heating fuel in Maine is around $3.56 a gallon while the wood chips needed to operate the biomass system are selling for between $45 and $50 a ton.

Once complete, the new biomass system will cleanly burn about 1,800 tons of wood chips a year.

“It is superefficient and supersafe,” Bard said. “You won’t see smoke or even steam coming out of the smokestacks.”

The Chiptec Biomass Boiler is made in Vermont, Bard said, using “New England ingenuity.”

Any parts needed for repairs or routine maintenance will be available at local hardware stores and minimal moving parts mean less risk of mechanical failure.

“It really is the best of the best,” Bard said.

Use of technology and the Internet will allow Bard to monitor and operate the boiler from a remote location.

“Joey will be able to sit on his couch at home and control the heat at the hospital while watching the Red Sox beat the Yankees,” joked Bill Greaves, regional forester with the Maine Forest Service. “This project is really a success story of what can happen when government agencies all work together.”

Greaves said the biomass plant makes use of a sustainable northern Maine wood supply that helps create jobs.

“Joey [Bard] and Peter [Sirois] will be able to look out their windows and see chip trucks drive by or pickups with lines of chain saws in the back and they can say, ‘I helped save those jobs,’” Greaves said.

Once complete, the three-boiler biomass system will heat the 115,000-square-foot hospital.

“It’s been a lot of research and a lot of work,” Bard said. “But can’t you tell how happy I am?” he added with a wide grin.

BDN writer Dawn Gagnon contributed to this report from Bangor.

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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.