Biomass in the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan

We would have to harvest every bit of wood in Vermont for electricity to replace Vermont Yankee.

By Meredith Angwin

On September 14, The Department of Public Service (DPS) released a 600 page Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) for Vermont. The DPS announced that October 10 was the last date they would accept public comments about the plan. Many groups objected that so important (and lengthy) a plan could not be reviewed in less than thirty days. The DPS has extended the deadline through November 4, and some reviews are being published.

The plan is long, vague, and internally inconsistent. In other words, it is almost impossible to review the plan as a whole.

Down to Brass Tacks: The Biomass Portion of the Plan 

Neil Daniels and Chuck Theall

Instead of tacking the whole thing, environmentalist Chris Matera studied a defined chunk: the plan’s recommendations for increased use of biomass for electricity production. Matera wrote an opinion for the Bennington Banner titled “

Vermont’s Plan Misses the Forest

.” He describes how burning wood for electricity causes air pollution, generates carbon dioxide, and causes deforestation. He asks: So how did increased cutting and burning of forests (called “deforestation” and “pollution” when it occurs in other countries) get re-branded as “green” energy..?.”

The CEP sections on woody biomass are confusing. The CEP encourages the use of “Combined Heat and Power” to utilize wood efficiently. It suggests using the waste heat from an electrical plant for home heating. However, the CEP also admits that nobody wants to live near a large wood-fired plant, and none of the existing plants have combined heat and power utilization. Similarly, on some pages, the CEP seems to expect only about a 30% increase in electricity from woody biomass in the near future. On nearby pages, the CEP describes “25 x’25”, a plan to produce 25% of Vermont’s energy by biomass fuels by 2025. (The most complete biomass section of the CEP is pages 95 through 106 of the second volume.)

Two years ago, the state legislature convened a biomass working group. The group is supposed to report its results on biomass utilization in 2012. It is typical of this administration that it is rushing to adopt the Comprehensive Energy Plan before receiving that report.

However, instead of trying to decipher the CEP statements on biomass, let’s look at real examples of biomass plants, and what it would take to expand this type of electricity production.

Actual Biomass Plants in the Area

Spring Power: The Spring Power LLC biomass plant in Springfield New Hampshire is visible to people who drive south on Interstate 89. It is located at exit 12A, not far from New London. The plant makes 19 MW of power, and runs most of the time, only shutting down for maintenance. It sells its power at about 5 cents per kWh, while paying around 4 cents per kWh for its wood. The Springfield plant is well-equipped with NOx and particulate control, and sells its fly ash as a garden amendment.

The Springfield plant burns 200,000 tons of wood to make 20 MW of electricity. This about 100,000 cords of wet wood (2 tons per cord). (information from the plant). Chuck Theall, the plant manager, says that the plant calls the grid operator daily, and promises to supply energy to the grid. The grid counts on his energy, and if the plant does not operate, it has to pay for replacement power. However, the plant is very reliable. The ability of a wood-burning plant to supply baseload power is in sharp contrast to solar and wind renewables, and makes expansion of wood-burning very attractive for an all-renewable energy plan.

The Spring Power plant has a mere one-cent spread between fuel costs and received revenue. Chuck Theall explains that Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) help the plant remain profitable. Spring Power sells these certificates to out of state utilities that are required to have renewables or purchase such certificates. (Information from a site visit to Spring Power, see links)

Ryegate: The wood-fired Ryegate plant in Ryegate Vermont is virtually the same size as the Springfield plant, 20MW. According to the CEP, it produced electricity with an average cost of 14 cents per kWh. It burned 250,000 tons of wood, which would be 125,000 cords.

McNeil Plant: According to the CEP, the larger 50 MW McNeil woodfired plant near Burlington, Vermont “does not operate as a baseload facility as envisioned, but rather runs an intermediate plant at a 50% to 60% capacity of the time due to a combination of wood supply and bid pricing issues.” It seems this plant is caught between a rising cost of wood and a falling price of power.

How Much Forest Per Plant?

Both the Spring Power and Ryegate plants are 20 MW and they both run as baseload. They both burn about 200,000 tons (100,00 cords) of wood apiece.

In terms of power production, these plants are tiny. Vermont Yankee makes 620 MW of power. It would require 31 Ryegate or Spring Power plants to replace Vermont Yankee on the grid.  Last year, the Coalition for Energy Solutions wrote a review of VPIRG’s recommendations for Vermont’s energy future. The Coalition report is Vermont Electric Power in Transition. Full disclosure: I did the biomass research for that report.

At that time, I asked: “What is the sustainable yield of firewood for an acre of Vermont forest?” This was not an easy question to answer for “Vermont forests.” The motto of foresters is: “Every bit of forest is different.” Eventually, I found an approximate consensus: One-half cord per acre is a sustainable yield. One cord per acre (as I learned as a child) is too high.

A 20 MW wood-burning electricity plant requires 100,00 cords of wood, and wood can be sustainably harvested at one/half cord per acre. Therefore, it requires the yield from 200,000 acres, sustainably harvested, for a 20 MW plant. To give some context to this number, the Green Mountain National Forest is 400,000 acres, and the state of Vermont is 6,000,000 acres. So it would require the harvest from half of the Green Mountain Forest to make 20 MW of electricity.  However, 20 MW is only 1/30th of Vermont Yankee’s output. It would take 30 plants the size of Spring Power to replace Vermont Yankee. They would require the entire state of Vermont (6,000,000 acres) to be devoted to their wood supply.

Expanding our current wood-fired electricity production will be difficult, but not impossible. Replacing Vermont Yankee with wood-fired plants, or going “25% by 2025” for electricity through woody biomass is impossible. Also, wood-fired home heating and school heating will compete for the same type of wood used in these plants.

The Bigger Picture

In the long run, our forests are our joy. Our forests are our foliage season. Our forests eat carbon dioxide from the air, and even sustainable harvest will affect this to some extent. We can add some wood-fired electricity in Vermont, but not much. We cannot get one-fourth of our electricity from our forests. We need to be careful and mindful of competing uses for our woodlands.  And so, we return at last what Matera said in his op-ed:

So how did increased cutting and burning of forests (called “deforestation” and “pollution” when it occurs in other countries) get re-branded as “green” energy..?”

One thought on “Biomass in the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan

  1. I’m very much in favor of shutting down Vermont Yankee, but agree that it is a bad idea to expand biomass power in Vermont.

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