[OPINION] Helping Low-Income Vermonters Heat with Wood
[Read the opposing view, “Montpelier, Vermont’s Biomass Heating Facility Nothing to Celebrate,” by Willem Post, Consulting Engineer.]
– by Jessie-Ruth Corkins, Operations Director, Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative
The Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative (VSHI) is a small non-profit based out of northern Vermont, started by myself and other eager young students and teachers. We have helped 25 Vermont families on state fuel assistance transition to wood pellet heating and advocated for smart decisions regarding the long term sustainability of Vermont’s forest resources within a comprehensive renewable energy plan for Vermont.
VSHI was formed in 2008, just after many Vermont high schools had transitioned to woodchip heating. As a student at the time, I was motivated by the dreadful effects of climate change, and an understanding that transitioning more of Vermont’s infrastructure to wood heating presented both a solution and a challenge for the long term sustainability of our state’s forests. Could we heat more homes, businesses and schools in Vermont with wood? And who would advocate for our low-income neighbors who are forced to make tough decisions to stay warm during the winter?
Historically in Vermont and today, in places all around the world (for example Haiti), economics and lack of planning have caused severe forest resource depletion. Our Green Mountain state was once significantly cleared for pasture land and timber. And in the last 10 years multiple proposals have been on the table to use Vermont’s forests for more energy production, but deciding which proposal makes the best sense remains the question.
The Biomass Energy Resource Center published numbers in 2011 stating the available wood from our forests that could be harvested annually and remain a sustainable output long-term is roughly 2,000,000 green tons/year. Currently we are harvesting about ½ our capacity and could increase harvesting by 900,000 tons/year. To put that in perspective, that’s ½ cord of wood per person in Vermont, which doesn’t equal much heat per person, given Vermont winters.
Use of wood in the 21st century is complex but meaningful. With invasive species and many of ways to turn wood into energy, deciding the scale and type of energy output that makes sense for Vermonters moving forward is a fundamental question. VSHI does not support electricity generation from wood given the energy lost during conversion, and because turning Vermont’s limited wood supply into electricity would not reduce anyone’s electric rates. Instead we advocate for wood pellet production through small co-operatives around the state. Wood pellets are an easy to use and safe alternative to firewood and often make sense in low-income households. Transitioning more low-income Vermont homes to wood pellet heating would reduce the burden for monetary fuel assistance in Vermont.
Finally, while I support the Vermont Public Service Department’s work to advance wood heating technologies in Vermont—specifically though grants to schools and municipal buildings—they are missing a sub-set of Vermonters who can’t afford the transition to greener heating on their own. I encourage the Clean Energy Development Fund (a subset of the Vermont Public Service Department) to partner with Vermont’s Fuel Assistance Office and other key players to encourage Vermont-scale pellet production and invest in transitioning more homes in Vermont to wood pellet heating within the finite limits of the resource.
Jessie-Ruth Corkins is Operations Director of Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to the establishment of affordability and sustainability in Vermont’s home heating economy.