Maynard: Burlington Electric Department model unsustainable and not green

By Robert Maynard

As TNR’s Michael Bielawski points out in a November 2016 Vermont Watchdog article, Vermont’s race to become the first in the nation to be an “all green energy state” is being spearheaded by several municipalities that claim to have met that lofty target already. Chief among them is Burlington and Burlington Electric Department.

As the article points out, Vermont in general, and BED in particular, are using deceptive accounting practices when it come to renewable energy credits, or RECs. They sell high value RECs to other states and replace them with credits that are 5 or 6 times cheaper. This shell game is allowing them to keep electric rates low while driving up overall energy prices.

This economic model is about as sustainable as gambling in Las Vegas. It’s only a matter of time before the loopholes that allow this deception are closed and the whole charade comes crashing down on the unsuspecting customers. In addition to not being a sustainable economic model, it’s not a green one either. In other words, we are following a foolish economic model that actually is moving us away from the trends that helped Vermont to lead the way in the greening of America.

The maps of the logging operations — scanned from hard copies and replicated by hand using Google Maps — were accessed through the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has been tasked by the Vermont State Legislature to pre-approve management plans to log forests providing wood to the McNeil and Ryegate biomass power incinerators.

Vermont-led innovation helped to reverse a trend toward deforestation, which accompanied the Agricultural Age. As McClaughry and Bryan point out, by 1850, 75 percent of Vermont’s land had been cleared. The impact on our natural habitat was devastating. In 1878, 17 white-tailed deer had to be imported from New York to prevent their total extinction.

Fortunately, the next century saw a complete reversal of this trend, as Vermont was 75 percent forested by 1960. The deer population of Vermont went from nearly extinct to the thickest deer density in the union. Of course, the failure of sheep farming was a major reason for this trend here in Vermont, but the reforestation was not limited to Vermont. North America, as a whole, has undergone reforestation. The reason for this was pointed out by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills in a book entitled, “The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.”

In Chapter 10 (“Saving the Planet with Coal and Uranium”), Huber and Mills argue cogently that the United States is leading the way back toward carbon balance by using and promoting land-efficient, fossil-fuel-using farming techniques that allow farm land to revert to forest, which sequesters carbon and becomes a carbon sink. They cite controversial evidence that expanding forests in North America are sequestering more carbon each year than is emitted here. They also observe:

Over the long term, societies that expand and improve their energy supplies overwhelm those that don’t.  … Civilization, like life, is a Sisyphean flight from chaos. The chaos will prevail in the end, but it is our mission to postpone that day for as long as we can and to push things in the opposite direction. … Energy isn’t the problem. Energy is the solution.

Another factor was the rise of the internal combustion engine to replace horse and oxen power. That, too, enabled a lot of farm land to be reforested. Looking forward, they suggest that:

America’s relentless pursuit of high-grade energy does not add chaos to the global environment, but restores order. If energy policies like ours can be used worldwide, our grandchildren will inhabit a planet with less pollution, a more stable biosphere, and better-balanced carbon books than at any time since the rise of agriculture some five thousand years ago.

Slowly, the rest of the forests in the world are starting to rebound. Forests are branching out across the planet anew, raising hopes that an end to deforestation may be in sight, a new study claims. The study suggests that deforestation is not as drastic as it once was and that forests are recovering in many countries. The researchers say that over the past 15 years the amount of woodland has increased in 22 of the world’s 50 most forested nations.

One of the factors cited in the rebound of forest cover in America helps to explain the global rebound: “The authors say factors behind reforestation in North America and Europe range from increased conservation and farming productivity to a decline in newsprint demand following the rise of electronic media.”

Given that the Information Age is a global phenomenon, one would expect such an effect to have global implications. The problem is that the rebound in forest cover has not been uniform: Kauppi says whether the transition from deforestation to forest expansion becomes a truly global phenomenon will depend largely on Brazil and Indonesia, where huge areas of tropical forest are still being cleared.

Indonesia has recorded a 6 percent annual loss in forest biomass between 1990 and 2005.

“But if China and India can do it, why not Brazil and Indonesia?” Kauppi said.

The authors unwittingly stumble on an answer to their own question. Increased human migration from rural to urban areas and higher agricultural yields may also have aided regeneration, the authors say. Similar factors may have helped in India, where forest cover was found to have increased since 1990. The team says forest trends in these and other developing countries may be mirroring those seen in the past in industrialized Western nations.

As Huber and Mills pointed out, if energy policies like ours can be used worldwide, “our grandchildren will inhabit a planet with less pollution, a more stable biosphere, and better-balanced carbon books than at any time since the rise of agriculture some five thousand years ago.” The problem is that not all nations in the developing world are following trends “seen in the past in industrialized Western nations.” Increased human migration from rural to urban areas is a phenomenon that came with industrialization and higher agricultural yields comes from the kind of technical innovation that drove industrialization. The article does not mention Sub-Saharan Africa, which is experiencing both poverty and deforestation. In other words, loss of forest cover is more widespread than the article indicates and is taking place in nations that have been discouraged from following the model pioneered by the developed world. The article also hints at a link between poverty and environmental devastation.

Now let’s take a closer look at Huber and Mills’ notion that pursuing America’s development policies would result in “better-balanced carbon books.” They start with the fact that:

Fossil fuels burned on the continent release about 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon per year into the air. Prevailing winds blow from west to east. This means carbon dioxide concentrations should be 300 parts per billion hight in the North Atlantic than in the North Pacific. But in fact they’re about 300 parts per billion lower. As best as these things can be measured directly, America’s terrestrial uptake of carbon — the amount moving down into the surface rather than up into the air – runs about 1.7 billion metric toms per year, just ahead of the amount emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels.

The numbers were set out in a stunning if little published article published in an October 1998 issue of “Science.”

The total forest ecosystem in the United States holds and estimated 52 billion metric tons of carbon. A net growth of 3 percent a year is enough to consume all carbon emissions of the U.S economy. Either in forest themselves or on surrounding grasslands and farms, that is about the growth rate we seem to have. The carbon chaos we create in burning fossil fuels appears to be offset, and then some, by the carbon order we create by giving back land to trees.

At this point it may help to focus our energy discussion away from the actual fuel being used and toward the process of unlocking to potential energy stored in the fuel to usable energy. As Huber and Mills put it, “Unlikely though it may sound, the cost of energy as we use it today has less and less to do with the raw fuel that still occupies center stage in the discussion of ‘energy’ policy.” The reason for this is that “most of the cost of energy in the form we favor it today lies in the processing, the purification and the conversion.” The key factor when it comes to the choice of fuel being used is a term known as “energy density.” A fuel with a high energy density will have a less expensive and less environmentally intrusive conversion process. The same technological revolution that allowed us to harness energy dense sources of energy has made it possible to we keep finding additional sources, despite the doomsday predictions about running out of fuel sources. The reason for this is, that while fuel sources themselves may be limited, the creative human capacity to find new ways to use such sources seems to always find a way to get more out of what we have. Another result of the increase in human ingenuity is the shift in focus from energy to power. As our high technology driven economy becomes more sophisticated, it also becomes more electrified. In other words, a greater portion of our economy is dependent on a power grid as a source of electricity. Any responsible energy policy will have to take this fact into account.

So, the trends in the use of higher density energy has actually led us in a greener direction and Vermont has played a leading role in the past. The problem we have now is that the policies that our current political leadership is pursuing do not pass the test of effective stewardship. The result is that they very well could reverse the land use patters that higher density fuels helped us to move in a greener direction. A big part of the problem is that out policy makers focus mostly on the fuel and the direct emissions from that fuel. When looked at that way, they appear to be green. An even bigger problem is that some fuel sources that are labeled “renewable” are a major source of pollution.

Such is the case with biomass energy plants — in particular, wood burning plants. Although some of the wood used in such plants consists of scrap wood, the bulk of the wood used comes from whole trees. The argument is that this process is carbon neutral because of a commitment to replant the trees cut down to burn. One argument against is that it will take too long. The trees cut down to decades, or longer to grow. Burning them releasing all that carbon now, with the assumption that some day new trees will offset the carbon emissions from burning what was cut down. This is a highly doubtful assumption when you consider the high energy density fuel sources that low energy density wood burning is supposed to replace. To make up for the energy from those high density sources, more and more land will need to be logged for wood. This will result in the kind of deforestation that the Industrial Age reversed.

The subject of wood burning brings us back to Burlington Electric Department. By a large margin, the major source of energy produced by BED comes from the McNeil Generating Station. This station gets 70 percent of the wood burned from 70 percent trees and woody materials cut directly from the forest, according to the Energy Justice Network. The map at the beginning of this article was part of a McNeil Biomass Forest Mapping Project:

The maps of the logging operations — scanned from hard copies and replicated by hand using Google Maps — were accessed through the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has been tasked by the Vermont State Legislature to pre-approve management plans to log forests providing wood to the McNeil and Ryegate biomass power incinerators. Final biomass logging projects are approved by foresters employed by the McNeil facility and its co-owner Burlington Electric Department, with Fish and Wildlife officials rarely making site visits in advance of the logging and never after logging has taken place.

An estimated, one-half to two-thirds of the wood fueling the McNeil incinerator is sourced from New York State, where logging sites are neither tracked nor made available to the public, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Vermont is the only state in the U.S. requiring that a state agency keep track of forests logged for some biomass energy facilities.

McNeil is Vermont’s largest polluter, according to PlanetHazard.com.

Burlington officials are doing their best to obscure just how big a polluter McNeil is. Again, according to the Energy Justice Network:

The Burlington Climate Action Plan reports the entire city’s carbon dioxide emissions for 2007 — from all sources — at 397,272.4 tons. Yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates the CO2 emissions of McNeil’s Generating Station alone — the 50 megawatt biomass incinerator supplying roughly one-third of the city’s electricity — at 444,646 tons per year. A closer look reveals that the city only counted 2 percent of McNeil’s emissions from the 30 cords of wood it burns per hour from New York and Vermont forests along with a varying percentage of natural gas (including fracked gas).

Robert Maynard is the commentary editor for True North Reports.

6 thoughts on “Maynard: Burlington Electric Department model unsustainable and not green

  1. Robert/Matthew

    Burning trees for electricity generation is extremely inefficient.

    Wood Source Energy Factor: Losses = Upstream (harvest, chipping, transport, about 2.5%) + Conversion to electricity, including self-use for entire site (about 75%) + Transmission and distribution (about 7%) = 84.5%, i.e., 15.5% arrives at the user meters.

    The source energy factor for wood power plants is 100/15.5 = 6.45, i.e., the energy equivalent of 5.45 of 6.45 trees is wasted.

    * McNeil and Ryegate wood-fired power plants have similarly high pathway source factors because of their poor efficiency.

    Closing them would significantly reduce Vermont’s source energy, and toxic pollution, and CO2 emissions.

    Per government edict, burning trees is declared CO2-neutral, which is only partially true, because you have to wait for about 50 to 100 years for almost all of the CO2 to be fully reabsorbed by forest growth.

    About 25% (harvest, chipping, transport + T%D losses + site self-use) will NEVER be reabsorbed.
    http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/is-burning-wood-co-2-neutral

  2. Shumlin’s RPS REC scam is one of the sorriest and most dishonest items on a rather short list I keep on public policies in Vermont. The whole “climate change” argument is rife with similar dishonesties, like the systematic adjustment of temperature data upwards in recent decades, and downward in past decades, to show a rising curve to apocalypse.

  3. Interesting post, Robert. Renewable is not necessarily low-carbon (e.g. wood), and low-carbon is not necessarily renewable (nuclear). Isn’t it amazing that with all the hoopla about Vermont responses to for climate change, NOBODY is talking about the forestry sink? To me, developing and implementing carbon-sink intensive forests would seem to be the low-hanging fruit of VT climate policy, especially since we all agree that there is little downside: green forests are part of our Vermont name and our identity, pretty to look at, flood/runoff inhibitors, natural AC units with their shade and co2 consumption, and highly renewable and profitable sources of fuel, food, furniture, building materials, maple syrup, and tourist dollars.

    Regarding Vermont’s historical reversion to forests, I know that one of our governors (U.A. Woodbury) in 1890 or so was a Burlington lumber businessman who had a high regard for forestry, there are quotes attributed to him that make him sound like an early John Muir – or at least a peer of conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, who was governor across the lake at the time. I don’t know if he was an influential change agent – probably not – but he was at least representative of the change.

    Feel free to check out my latest State House Headliners column in which I praise a terrific article by Tena Starr in the most recent (Barton) Chronicle, outlining the challenges to the VT logging industry. Seems to me that how VT manages our woodland – including logging existing forests, and passive or active conversion of open space to forestry – will speak volumes about our climate change contribution. One caution – the stat saying that our forests consume as much carbon as we emit is obsolete, according to the latest U.N. metric, which would put our forest carbon sink at about 55% of total human co2 emissions.

    To your main point – how green is BED if it relies on burning wood – I’m uncertain about the science. Cut down a mature tree and its replacement grows faster, consuming more Co2. Adolescents need more food than old folks, whether trees or people. I suppose the best of both worlds is growing and harvesting trees for low-carbon use (which could possibly include fuel, if the emissions are “scrubbed” somehow.)

    If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times – too bad Vermont Yankee is closed, we sure could use that carbon-free generation. Good article in VT Business Mag on VEC, which buys 18% of its power from Seabrook and has a 95% carbon-free power portfolio. I also learned that VEC also participates in the Nissan Leaf rebate, which is going gangbusters apparently.

    Lots of half-baked ideas and no real hard information – where is Bill Sayre when I need him?

    • Guy,

      On a lifetime basis, EVs have about as much CO2 emissions as ICVs.

      Efficient ICVs, say 40 mpg and up, have less. See table in article.
      http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/comparison-of-energy-efficiency-and-co2-of-gasoline-and-electric

      See my comments regarding wood burning.

      A naturally growing and dying forest, if EXPANDING its biomass, will sequester CO2.

      The 130 ppm increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and the 1 C increase in world temperature and increased rainfall, are promoting biomass growth (and crop growth) all over the world.

      A PLANTED forest, as in Georgia, is harvested every 25 years. Such procedure increases CO2 sequestering faster than natural growth, but about 25% more of various CO2 emitting inputs are needed to make it happen and that CO2 will NEVER be recovered.

  4. Wow. So true north is saying that logging is bad now? What about the Panton farmers that cut trees in a public right of way? Perhaps they sold them to Mc Neil….

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