A rendering of the new VA energy plant.
Construction is expected to start in about two months on a biomass boiler system that will give Chillicothe (Ohio) VA Medical Center the distinction of being the first VA health care facility to utilize the technology.

Steven Benson, chief of facilities management at the medical center, says the VA facility is building a new energy plant that will house three new natural gas-fired boilers at a cost of $11.7 million.

The additional biomass unit will cost $13.4 million, bringing the total cost of the project to about $25 million, he says. Funding for the biomass boiler came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Once the biomass unit is up and running, it will provide the 1 million-square-foot facility's entire water heating and steam heat generation needs, Benson says. The natural gas units will serve mostly as backup, especially in extremely cold weather.

"It makes a lot of sense financially," Benson says about installing the biomass boiler. "It actually saves costs. Depending on natural gas prices, the biomass boiler will save $600,000 to $900,000 a year in fuel costs. And natural gas likely will increase much more rapidly than biomass.

"More than that, the biomass unit is green energy, it's renewable, it's carbon neutral. That is something that's becoming important to the entire power-generating industry," he says.

The biomass boiler will burn wood chips, which will be shipped to the facility in semitrailers every day during most of the year. During extreme winter weather, three loads of wood chips will be shipped daily, he adds.

The three natural gas boilers are scheduled to be operating by October while the biomass unit is expected to start running by the fall of 2012, Benson say.