Steamboat Springs Later this month, a unique ceremony is expected to take place at Soroco High School in Oak Creek.
The school's coal-fired boilers, installed in 1970 and likely the last of their kind to heat any school in the state, will be turned off a final time. Who will pull the ceremonial lever has yet to be determined - officials from the Governor's Energy Office are a possibility - but the significance of the moment is not in question.
Coal boilers also heat Soroco Middle School, South Routt Elementary School in Yampa and the South Routt School District's bus barn. All the boilers soon will be shut down as part of a $4.1 million energy overhaul that is improving the energy efficiency of South Routt schools dramatically.
It is an overhaul that deserves recognition and praise.
Ask any South Routt school employee about the boilers and they'll probably have a story for you - about layers of thick soot, about custodial and maintenance staff working in the wee hours of the morning to fix or fire the aging boilers, about unreliable heat, and about coal ash getting tracked into classrooms and hallways.
"Basically, 20 to 30 percent of my time was spent on boiler-related issues this winter," said Larry Radford, director of operations for the school district. "They were basically on their last leg and broke down quite a bit."
Radford spoke Friday of increasing difficulty acquiring good stoker coal - rarely used these days - and the resulting poor quality powderized coal containing large amounts of clay that would clog tubes and require frequent maintenance. Radford described that work as "a dirty, nasty, hot job."
Soon, such jobs will be relics of the past.
When construction heats up after the end of the school year, a biomass boiler will be installed to heat Soroco Middle School, and geothermal pipes will be installed to heat much of Soroco High School and South Routt Elementary School in Yampa.
Kelly Reed, outgoing superintendent of South Routt schools, said the system should meet the district's needs for 30 years.
A propane boiler also will be installed as a back-up at the middle school and high school complex in Oak Creek. Installation of new infrared lights was completed more than two weeks ago in the elementary school gymnasium.
The entire project is funded primarily by a $1.57 million bond issue passed by voters in November 2007, $1.57 in capital construction grants from the Colorado Department of Education and more than $600,000 in energy impact grants from the state Department of Local Affairs.
Getting the state capital grants was not easy.
Reed estimated that after the district's initial application, South Routt was positioned lower than 150 out of nearly 180 grant applications from across the state. So Reed worked the phones and, eventually, convinced a state education official to come to Oak Creek and see the coal boilers firsthand.
South Routt quickly shot to the top of the list.
"That's when the tide turned," Reed said of the visit. "It made a huge difference."
Now, South Routt is positioned to be a leader in energy innovation. Soroco Middle School likely will become the first school in Colorado to be heated by biomass, using wood pellets from plants in Kremmling or Walden.
The new heating systems are creating positive change across the school district.
"We've spent the last three years really dealing with a lot of infrastructure improvement," South Routt School Board President Tim Corrigan said recently. "Now I think we're ready to move onto the real challenges of directly dealing with educational opportunities for kids."