Signs of Sustainability Series: It’s Warm at the Cayuga Nature Center!

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By Catherine McCarthy

If you haven’t been to the Cayuga Nature Center lodge in the past two months, you may be surprised to hear that it is warm indoors thanks to a new super-efficient biomass boiler.

Biomass boilers burn organic materials such as wood and agricultural crop residues to produce heat as an alternative to burning petroleum oil or natural gas.

The European-designed, wood-fueled demonstration boiler was installed at the Cayuga Nature Center in November thanks to the tireless efforts of many organizations and volunteers.  Spearheading this project has been Nature Center Advisory Council member and volunteer Tony Nekut.

Other key collaborators essential to the success of this project are: Advanced Climate Technologies (ACT) of Schenectady, Cornell University, Clarkson University, and Cornell lecturer Francis Vanek and the students enrolled in Cornell’s “Engineers for a Sustainable World” class.

The commercial-sized boiler at the Cayuga Nature Center was funded primarily by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) as part of a larger research project. In 2008 NYSERDA awarded funds for nine projects across the state valued at more than $2.5 million to study energy and emissions performance for a variety of wood-burning equipment, including wood boilers, pellet stoves, wood stoves, and emerging grass-pellet technologies.

After several years in the design and planning phase of the project, the new boiler replaced the old, inefficient propane fueled boilers at the Nature Center, resulting in a significant savings in heating costs as well as a significant increase in heating output.

The new 400,000 BTU/hour boiler system passes stringent European air quality standards and boasts efficiency rates of up to 90 percent, in comparison to many residential wood boilers that operate at 50 percent efficiency. This type of boiler produces less than five percent of the particulate emissions of less efficient wood boilers typically used in the United States. Emissions are roughly equivalent to typical oil or gas boilers used in the United States.

Local woodlots and forests in New York State can supply clean, renewable fuel for wood boilers, and in the process, support local economies by retaining dollars currently shipped overseas to purchase fossil fuels. The Cayuga Nature Center has over 100 acres of land, which through sustainable harvesting has the potential to provide some of the wood chips to fuel the boiler; the Nature Center has been planting fast-growing trees for future fuel.  Planning is also underway to add a demonstration of sustainable forest management at the Nature Center.

Several different efforts are underway in the Ithaca area to explore wood burning technology and supply options. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County is working on public education regarding different energy sources for heating including options and supplies for efficient wood heating. Tony Nekut, working with the Community Biomass Energy collective, is exploring options for the creation of a local wood pellet processing mill in Caroline.

Cayuga Nature Center Executive Director Tom Trencancsky states,  “This project fits perfectly with the Cayuga Nature Center’s mission to cultivate awareness, appreciation and responsibility for the natural world through outdoor and environmental education.  If you haven’t been to the Nature Center in a while, come visit us this winter, and make sure you stop inside the lodge to warm up.”

Catherine McCarthy is Cayuga Nature Center Board President

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