[OPINION] Montpelier, Vermont’s Biomass Heating Facility Nothing to Celebrate

[Read the opposing view, “Helping Low-Income Vermonters Heat With Wood,” by Jessie-Ruth Corkins, Operations Director, Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative.]

– by Willem Post, Consulting Engineer

The Montpelier District Heating Plant is a joint project of the City of Montpelier and the State of Vermont to provide local renewable energy to downtown Montpelier. With the rebuilding of the State’s existing central heating plant, modern wood-fired boilers will heat the Capitol Complex and connections will be put in place to expand its service area to City and School buildings as well as connect to private buildings in downtown Montpelier.

Before renovation, the heating plant was fired with only No. 2 fuel oil to produce steam to heat state office buildings. After renovation, the heating plant is fired with about 85% wood chips and about 15% No. 2 fuel oil, and a hot water distribution loop was added to heat other buildings.

The claimed benefits of the renovated plant include:

Reduced health threatening air emissions from fuel combustion in downtown Montpelier by as much as 11 tons per year.

As will be shown, that claim is invalid,

Replacement of approximately 300,000 gallons of oil per year between the State and downtown buildings as a prime fuel source with locally/regionally produced wood chips keeping that economic activity in the northeast.

As will be shown, that claim is only partially valid, as about 15% of the plant heat input from No. 2 fuel oil continues to be required.

Fuel cost stabilization for city government and the school department allowing tax dollars to potentially be redirected toward services or infrastructure rather than to pay rising oil prices.

As will be shown, those savings are due to significantly undercharging for the heating services, i.e., the plant is operating at a significant loss.

An economic development opportunity in downtown Montpelier by providing a cleaner and potentially cheaper source of heat for private building owners.

Whenever one group of people get a benefit, another group has to pay for it, i.e., contrary to claims, there is no free lunch.

The removal of many private oil furnaces and underground fuel oil storage tanks from potential flood areas.

A minor side benefit from a $20 million project.

An analysis of the operating costs and emissions of the plant shows:

– The rates at which heat is charged to building owners are much too low, i.e., the plant is operated at a significant loss of $400,000 – $450,000/yr. This excludes any financing and depreciation costs.

– The CO2 emissions with a mix of wood chip/fuel oil are about 4,446 ton/yr versus about 3,699 ton/yr with 100% fuel oil, an increase of about 447 ton/yr.

– The emissions other than CO2 increased from about 5.72 ton/yr (100% No. 2 fuel oil) to about 11.92 ton/yr, an increase of 6.2 ton/yr.

– The particulate matter, PM, increased from about 121.8 lb/yr (100% No. 2 fuel oil) to about 910.8 lb/yr (15% No.2 fuel oil/85% wood chips), an increase of about 7.5 times; most of that PM is harmful PM2.5, which is difficult to collect with electrostatic precipitators.

If this were a private, unsubsidized project, servicing a loan of $20,000,000 at 3% interest/yr for 40 years, the annual payments would be $865,247.56/yr.

The economics of this project are dismal and the plant emits significantly more CO2 and particulate matter, PM, than heating with fuel oil; a perfect example of:

– The state’s wasteful meddling that is making less efficient Vermont’s energy sector, thereby adversely affecting Vermont’s future economic growth, job creation and standards of living.

– Politicians and various renewable energy interests banding together to improve re-election prospects and feather their renewable energy nests at the expense of the rest of Vermonters, who get taxed extra by these same politicians to pay for it all.

– More such politics-inspired, uneconomic wood chip plants in Vermont would be another, multi-decade headwind for Vermont’s fragile, near-zero-growth economy.

Despite press releases crowing of “success,” there is nothing to celebrate having such wood chip plants. District heating systems are based on bygone technology, which has been surpassed by modern building envelope and building system design since about 1973, more than 40 years ago.

[Read the un-excerpted piece at Energy Collective.]

Willem Post is a consulting engineer and project manager specializing in energy efficiency of buildings and building systems. He has performed feasibility studies, wrote master plans, evaluated and performed designs for incineration systems, air pollution control systems, utility and industrial power plants, and integrated energy systems for campus-style building complexes. 

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