HUGHESVILLE – On a frigid January morning, East Lycoming School District Business Manager Dave Maciejewski stood next to a 40-acre field of shrub willow and explained why he had asked the district to plant it.

“It’s all about diversity,” he said, “and opportunity.”

Maciejewski was referencing the district’s foray into the field of bioenergy, or the use of renewable energy derived from biological sources, when he spoke at the Willow for Energy Field Day Harvest demonstration at Hughesville High School on Tuesday morning. The event drew a group of more than 30 industry professionals and others.

The willow was planted in 2010 for use in a woodchip-burning boiler, an energy-efficient project installed the same year that is part of Maciejewski’s continuing efforts – including geothermal heating systems at Ferrell and Renn elementary schools and solar panels on the roof of the high school – to transform the district into a model of large-scale clean, sustainable energy use.

The Northeast Woody/Warm Season Bioenergy Consortium, or NEW Bio, a regional network of universities, businesses and governments, dedicated to establishing sustainable biomass energy projects is supervising the project at the high school and is “extremely pleased with the progress,” said Mike Jacobson, professor of ecosystem science and management at Penn State.

Maciejewski sees the willow as “an option for diversity in our fuel supply,” noting that the harvested wood chips

will make up about one-third of the 600 to 650 tons of chips, or roughly 200 tons, that is used in the boiler from mid-October through mid-April.

The district buys its woodchips from Lewis Lumber, of Picture Rocks, a company that harvests only from sustainable forests, at roughly $37 per ton, said Maciejewski, but that cost will drop significantly when the willow is being steadily harvested.

“All told, the district will be saving about $30,000 per year on heating costs,” he said.

Superintendent Michael Pawlik echoed that sentiment, noting that, “This will break down to roughly $60 in savings to the taxpayer, every year.”

Using plant-derived materials, or biomass products, as energy sourced has been in practice in European countries since the 1970s, but it’s just now beginning to gain a toehold in the United States, Jacobson said.

Only 10 schools in Pennsylvania, including colleges, use wood chip-boiler heating, and Hughesville is the only high school in the nation that now is harvesting its own biomass product.

“It’s incredibly progressive thinking,” said Mike Palko, a biomass energy specialist with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

He also pointed out the environmental benefits of planting products such as willow and miscanthus, a tall reed-like grass, for biomass purposes.

“There is a serious pollenation problem right now,” he said, referencing the drastic drop in bee populations in recent years, “but I’ve visited willow fields in spring and summer where there were so many bees trying to reach the buds that you’d never know it.”

“There’s only a few hundred acres” of biomass products such as willow and miscanthus in the state right now, Jacobson said, but the goal of the consortium is to have much more.

“Our objective is to have this technology available on an industrial scale within the next five years,” he said.

The demonstration drew other interesed parties as well. Nate McKelvie, from Milton Hershey School in Hershey, was in attendance to watch the demonstration and evaluate whether or not it would work for some land that the school owns.

“It’s a wonderful idea, really intriguing. I think it’s definitely something that the school administration will talk about,” he said.

Unlike its cousin the weeping willow, shrub willow grows straight upward, reaching heights of almost 20 feet. It’s a hardy plant that can grow in climates found all over the country, from cold and dry to warm and humid.

It takes three to four years for the plants to reach maturity, said Abe Rak, of Double A Willow in Fredonia, N.Y., the company that supplied the willow cuttings.

When it’s ready, the willow is harvested in thirds, so that by the time the entire field has been harvested once, the plants that were cut first have reached maturity again.

The crop is harvested through the use of a specially designed piece of machinery that is fixed to the side of a tractor and cuts down a row of willow at a time, feeding it through teeth that instantly reduce it to its finely chipped form.

A trailer is hitched to the harvester and is towed along behind, catching the constant stream of wood chips.

The district’s actual harvester, a roughly $50,000 model that will cut two rows at a time, has been paid for by NEW Bio and is awaiting completion at Ny Vraa’s headquarters.

Palko had high praise for Maciejewski and his efforts in biomass energy and bringing in NEW Bio to be a part of the project.

“Everywhere I’ve seen this kind of project, there’s a local champion of it,” he said. “You’re the local champion here.”