Biomass Generator Means Big Savings for Gainesville School District

A group of Gainesville students and community, government and other officials cut the ribbon on the generator.

On a clear, perfect October day, you could forgive students of the Gainesville R-V School District for wondering why they were attending an assembly to celebrate the completion of the district’s new generator.

But after getting a look at the generator, and learning what it will mean to the district, Gainesville, and the people of the surrounding Ozark County hills, they won’t be wondering for long.

Monday marked the official ribbon cutting for Gainesville’s new Woody-Biomass Heating System, which will use wood chips extracted from the nearby Ozark Mountain foothills to heat the district’s main high school and junior high campus. By eliminating the need for nearly all natural gas, the district can expect to save about $37,000 per year on heating and cooling costs, Missouri Department of Conservation representative Lisa Allen told a packed gym of community members, school officials and most of the district’s assembled students.

The new generator was made possible through funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the post-2008 recession program that sought to bring jobs and energy innovation to the United States. The project was funded through a USDA Forest Service’s State & Private Forestry program grant to the Missouri Department of Conservation (who then granted the money to Gainesville). Gainesville also enlisted financial support from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and White River Valley Electric Cooperative.

The Community Foundation of the Ozarks made a $1.1 million loan to the Gainesville School District for the generator, worked out through a lease-purchase agreement. Over the course of 10 years the district will make below-market interest rate  payments to CFO to own the generator outright. The project is the largest of CFO’s Mission-Related Investments (MRIs). Adopted by the CFO Board of Directors in 2009, up to 2 percent of the foundation’s assets can be invested in below-market loans for community projects in southern Missouri. This program represents the CFO’s commitment to the “double-bottom line” of investing in enterprises that produce both financial and social returns for Ozarks communities, instead of investing assets solely in financial markets.

The project is actually one of six new biomass generators scheduled to go online in coming weeks (other southern Missouri generators are in Mountain View, Steelville, and Eminence). The wood chips will be cut from trees in and around Gainesville.

In addition to the savings for the district and jobs for the forest services-and-products industry, Allen said, the thinning of native forest is good for the environment, preventing overgrowth, disease among the flora, and the likelihood of destructive fire. USDA Forest Service representative Lew McCreery, visiting from West Virginia where such generators are fairly common, said the connection of the town to its surrounding forest is only strengthened. “This will link your community to the forest you see every day in a whole new way,” he said. “It also allows your district to operate more cheaply and start on a new vision.”

Along with the new generator itself, the district secured enough money to replace all of its old windows with energy-efficient windows, replace baseb0ard water heaters in all of the bathrooms (that’ll be handled by the generator as well) and make other significant energy-efficiency improvements, Superintendent Bill Looney said.