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Group explores biomass

Can the woods open possibilities for sustainable energy for Windham County?

BRATTLEBORO—Vermont’s landscape works for a living.

Across its rolling hills, pasturelands, rivers, and forests spring livelihoods made possible by tourism, agriculture, industry, and forestry.

And — in a state where the workers’ unofficial motto is “Moonlight in Vermont, or starve” — one tract of land can support many jobs from many industries simultaneously.

According to Guy Payne of the Sustainable Energy Outreach Network (SEON), speaking at a presentation his organization hosted Jan. 28 at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, this area could develop into a foremost center of renewable and sustainable energy in rural America.

The gathering, on wood-based biomass heating and its economic development potentials, was attended by some 40 people identifying themselves as landowners, foresters, loggers, wood processors, retail owners, educators, energy consultants, builders, and community members.

SEON, an 18-month-old networking organization with headquarters on Putney Road, aims to develop a regional concentration of renewable energy and weatherization businesses, educational programs, best practices, and technologies.

SEON facilitates a three-hour monthly Building Science Learning Circle and hosts bi-monthly meetings.

The night’s presenters — Paul Frederick, with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, and Adam Sherman, a consultant with Biomass Energy Research Center (BERC) — discussed the county’s potential for large-scale biomass thermal energy.

Biomass is any fuel derived from plant or animal sources: corn, say, or manure. Biomass fuels include wood pellets, ethanol, and methane. Wood is the most common form of biomass, including in the wood-burning stoves and fireplaces used as a primary heating source by nearly 18 percent of Vermont households.

On the plus side, the speakers said, many institutional buildings, such as schools, use wood-based biomass, and the county has ample forests.

On the negative side, they noted, the county lacks ample biomass infrastructure, and many forest lots are small.

Vermont’s forests are an economic driver which supports more than 6,500 jobs, and drives about $861 million in direct sales or manufacturing, according to Frederick, the state’s Wood Utilization and Wood Energy Forester.

According to state data, Vermont is the fourth most forested state. About 75 percent of our land boasts forests. Of the forested land, 98 percent supports trees suitable for harvesting, either for wood products or biomass fuel.

Frederick said Vermont forests have sufficient trees to permit sustainable production.

He added that, although the statewide potential for wood-based biomass fuels remains high, challenges include distances between wood lots and processing plants.

According to Frederick, the state has tracked logging since the 1940s. Figures show logging peaked in the late 1990s, and has since tapered off. Logging infrastructure has followed suit, he said.

Approximately 25 sawmills classified by the state as medium to large operated in Vermont in 1990, said Frederick. Last year, he said, they numbered 13.

Against that backdrop, he said, the demand for wood-based fuels has increased among commercial, residential, institutional, and state users.

Frederick shared highlights of Windham County forests based on data collected by University of Vermont graduate student Doug Morin, who published his findings as “The Forest Products Industry on Windham County, Vermont: Status, Challenges and Opportunities.”

According to Frederick citing Morin, about 93 percent of Windham County is forested. Its annual 2 percent growth rate is equal to approximately 275,000 cords of wood. The majority of the county’s forests are under private ownership.

Almost half of the land area breaks into parcels of 50 acres or less, Frederick explained — a challenge for harvesting. As lot sizes shrink, the owners and neighbors often shift from a culture of forestry to one of preservation.

Meanwhile, the county has several large-scale, wood-based biomass heating systems: West River Valley Senior Housing in Townshend is wood-heated, as are the Leland & Gray and Brattleboro school complexes. Approximately 47 percent of K-12 students statewide attend schools heated with wood biomass.

Two of the state’s largest wood processing mills, Allard Lumber and Cersosimo Industries, are in Windham County, as are 13 smaller sawmills.

“You’ve got some real jewels here,” Frederick told his audience.

Another challenge for wood-based fuel: the risk of moving pests from infected forests into uninfected areas. Frederick cited the emerald ash borer, an insect that destroys ash trees.

He added that infested residential firewood moves the highest number of pests. State and federal regulations control the shipping of wood between quarantined areas to uninfected areas.

Frederick said the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation is compiling strategies to adapt to climate change. Foresters have guessed at what trees may die off, and what trees will replace them should Vermont’s climate become drier, warmer, or wetter.

He allowed that planning for climate change is difficult, as no one knows for certain how it will alter the forests.

BERC’s Adam Sherman said that biomass isn’t perfect, but it’s better than petroleum. BERC, a program of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., based in Burlington, works with communities and institutions to develop biomass projects.

The state’s energy goal is for 90 percent of Vermont’s total energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2050, said Sherman and Payne.

Sherman said this goal is achievable through a combination of conservation, weatherization, and renewable technologies.

Vermont has long led the nation in thermal biomass installations, especially using wood-based fuels such as in wood pellet boilers in schools. According to Sherman, the first school to install a wood boiler was in Calais, in Washington County, in 1984.

Unfortunately, due to our relatively cold climate, Vermont also leads in the use of No. 2 heating oil, Sherman said. He explained that Vermont residents spend an average of $750 million on heating oil annually, and estimated that 85 cents of each dollar spent on heating oil locally leaves the local economy.

Sherman said that purchasing wood-based fuel keeps an average of $43.6 million in the local economy.

“You could put a very large ding” in the amount of heating oil consumed in Windham County by burning wood-based biomass, he said.

Many opposing biomass argue that burning wood releases airborne particulates that take a toll on respiratory health.

Sherman counters such concern, saying advances in combustion technology have increased efficiency and lowered carbon emissions. Equipment used to scrub the air released through the burning process is more effective and cost less than older models.

Sherman and members of SEON also touted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed last fall by Vermont and Upper Austria, one of the nine states of Austria. The intent: to foster ideas and businesses, and to share best practices on biomass.

According to Sherman, Upper Austria houses 1.5 million people in a region the area of Connecticut. About 45 percent of the area is forested, and about 45 percent of its buildings are heated with wood fuel.

Panelists and audience members called out the challenge of securing capital as a common roadblock to installing large biomass heating systems and establishing district heating systems that serve multiple buildings.

Sherman said he felt that if consumers focused on installing a number of medium-sized heating systems, lenders would see the investment as less risky.

Indeed, Payne said, over the past year SEON members have recognized what he called the economic value of collaboration.

Payne concluded the meeting by taking the names of people interested in serving on a SEON subcommittee focused on biomass.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #240 (Wednesday, February 5, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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