BY APRIL STREETER | OB CONTRIBUTOR
Nothing is more ‘old school’ than an oil-burning boiler. These behemoth machines, with their giant combustion chambers and extensive heating ductworks, live in every school building Portland Public Schools (PPS) owns.
But they don’t burn oil anymore. Three years ago PPS set out to begin to convert the 1930s-era boilers from diesel/bunker fuel to cleaner-burning natural gas by replacing their internal burners. By doing so, Oregon’s largest school district has realized impressive carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reductions in the bargain.
At first, the proposed conversion was seen purely as a cost- and energy-saving measure. PPS was using around a million gallons of a diesel/bunker fuel mix, called PS 300, annually for its 47 schools.
“The fuel was delivered by barge to Portland, and rumor had it that that might be switched to trucks, with a big impact - higher costs,” said Tony Magliano, PPS facilities director. “So we started looking around for a replacement.”
What PPS found was that a relatively small investment of around $11 million for burner upgrades in all the boilers would allow them to use natural gas, thus saving the district an estimated $1.8 million in fuel and maintenance costs each year. The cost savings were ample, yet serendipitously, eco-benefits turned out to be as impressive. Getting rid of the oil burners would be like taking 2,500 cars off the road each year.
First, though, PPS would have to find money for the conversions, no easy feat in a perennially cash-strapped funding atmosphere. Through Governor Kitzhaber’s Cool Schools initiative, a small portion of the total budget could be financed.
After some thought, PPS decided to privately finance the remaining $9 million in project costs, planning to pay back the loan just in five years from fuel savings. Working with SKANSKA as general contractor and with NW Natural running the natural gas lines to each school’s boiler room, PPS managed to switch out 33 schools’ burners in the summer of 2012.
“We had to work around school schedules and we needed to do all those 33 schools at once,” Magliano said, in order to make the first payment on the debt. Luckily, he added: “Our savings exceeded projections.”
In the first year, not only did the school district easily service its debt — but by the close of its fiscal year 2012-2013, PPS also cut its carbon emissions by just over 5,000 metric tons, and reduced the many maintenance hours that employees use to spend (in full protective suits and respirators) to "punch" the boilers - i.e. scrub out black soot accumulating in boiler tubes.
In the summer of 2013, the remaining 14 schools got their natural gas burners installed. By the end of this school year, PPS expects the CO2 reductions will total 6,300 tons annually
Though PPS hadn’t initially factored it in, the switch further allowed the district to reduce the heights of schools’ brick chimneys, which slightly reduces their danger in a seismic ‘event,’ as well as let it decommission many underground fuel storage tanks.
One other fortuitous benefit of the conversions, especially in light of rising tension over air quality around sites like the former PPS Clarendon school building in North Portland, is the toxic air emissions reductions.
Jeff Haman, PPS energy specialist, calculated that just with the first 33 burner conversions CO2 emissions dropped by 44% and methane emissions dropped 78%. In addition, nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions dropped 87% and particulates (soot) emissions were 90 – 95% eradicated.
As soot and NOx are both implicated in cardiovascular diseases as well as asthma and other respiratory ailments, the burner conversions are a small but beneficial contribution to Portland’s air quality and childhood health.
Mary Peveto, a longtime air quality advocate with Neighbors for Clean Air in Portland, said Oregon and Portland still lag significantly in air emissions regulations, and PPS has more work to do to be a “partner voice of advocacy to reduce air toxins.”
“It’s particularly relevant for Portland area schools near large emitters of neurotoxins like manganese,” Peveto said. “It is true for NW Portland schools and potentially even more for North Portland schools like Roosevelt and the former Clarendon campus.”
Both public and private institutions could stand to gain, not just monetarily but also in contributing to the state’s improved air quality and health outcomes by planning to transition operations to cleaner fuel use. In some cases biofuel boilers might even be cost effective (and could spur Oregon’s alternative fuels industry), though natural gas currently holds a cost advantage.
“We think more school districts, hospitals, and college campuses would benefit by making [this] switch,” said Melissa Moore, NW Natural communications manager. “Another category are manufacturers, which when switching can experience cost savings, environmental benefits and less maintenance.”