Our Work

Vermonters Look to the Woods for Fuel

From the 6/27/2010 Burlington Free Press

By Jake Brown

A cord of wood neatly stacked in a Vermont dooryard has long been a symbol of Vermont’s centuries of self-sufficiency and clever-Yankee use of our local, natural resources.

Now, however, more than ever, spawned by dwindling supplies of traditional fuels, rising energy prices and increasing interest in energy independence, Vermonters of all stripes and persuasions are asking: Should Vermont tap its forests, more than it does today, to meet our energy demands?

The question hangs in the air today perhaps with more urgency than ever before in Vermont. As more people ponder the costs and consequences of our energy choices, including disasters like the recent deadly coalmine explosion in West Virginia and the continuing oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, many are looking for homegrown energy options, which maximize the benefits and minimize the harm.

Using forest biomass – or “low quality” wood that has few other commercial purposes (generally either chipped or turned into pellets) – from Vermont’s forests is drawing more attention and interest across Vermont, including increased announcements from would-be energy developers with preliminary plans for biomass plants around the state. Simultaneously, intense controversy over the issue in Massachusetts has sent something of a shock wave through the region.

Listening Sessions

In partial response, several groups – including us at the Vermont Natural Resources Council – have been holding forums around the state in recent weeks on the issue to hear what Vermonters think of biomass. (With two well-attended sessions in Middlebury and Montpelier already completed, the final forum for the summer is set for July 8 in White River Junction. Find out more below)

It’s clear from the turnout of the forums as well as the tone — defined largely by passionate yet disparate views — Vermonters care a lot about this issue.

Andy Shapiro, the president of Energy Balance, an East Montpelier based consulting firm offering high performance energy efficient building design, attended the recent forum in Montpelier. He said it is heartening that people in Vermont generally appear to be aware of the broad scope of issues biomass development involves.

“It’s great the discussion is going on, and people are trying to pay attention to the big picture – so we pay attention to the resource.” He said in other places, like Massachusetts, the emphasis has been on developing large electricity-generating biomass plants. There appears to be a different, and more holistic, approach emerging in Vermont, he believes.

Shapiro notes that not only should biomass development involve capturing heat as well as electricity, but the heat itself should be used as efficiently as possible. He said that as policy makers consider incentives to get people and businesses off fossil fuels by encouraging biomass or other sources, they should first assure the end use is of the utmost efficiency. They should tie to any incentive packages increased energy efficiency – like super insulation and tight windows for instance – to get the best bang for the buck.

Another key to assuring a long-term forest fuel source, Shapiro notes, is sustainable forestry practices so that the forest can continue producing the fuel.

“A renewable resource is only sustainable if we take care of it,” he says. “Unless we require or implement forest practices that leave the forest in good shape, we will be killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Dave Mance III, the editor of Northern Woodlands magazine, was also at the Montpelier forum. He calls Vermont’s approach so far “thoughtful” and like Shapiro drew a distinction between the way Vermont is approaching the issue and how Massachusetts has.

“I think the vast majority of Vermonters see the value in locally produced energy, and they rightly see biomass as a commonsensical step in that direction. There is legitimate, healthy debate about how best to utilize biomass, electricity vs. heat, but at least most of us are starting from the shared idea that utilizing our forest resources in a sustainable manner is a good idea,” he said. He said that policy makers should continue to encourage good forest stewardship and working forests through programs like Current Use.

More interest in wood, possible policy changes

Many of Vermont’s schools heat their plants with wood chips. More and more Vermonters are using pellet stoves to heat their homes. Many municipalities, including Montpelier, have plans to use biomass systems, such as district energy systems, to heat their downtown areas. Proposals for new pellet plants and wood-fired power are increasing. It’s clear: The pressure to tap Vermont’s forests for energy is mounting.

So, how might Vermont turn to our forests for energy and do it well, by minimizing impacts, maximizing benefit and balancing the many different interests and values of Vermonters? These are clearly the kinds of questions many Vermonters are now asking, and looking to help answer.

While Vermont currently lacks a truly comprehensive plan for how the state might harness energy from our woody resources, there are some important dialogues and planning underway.

One of the key entities charged with helping devise a strategic response to the biomass question is the Vermont Biomass Energy Development Working (BioE) Group. This group, created by the Legislature one year ago and comprised of a spectrum of interested parties, is charged with studying the issue and making a set of strategic recommendations to the Legislature and Administration. The group’s goal is to offer advice on how to develop and enhance the state’s biomass industry while also maintaining forest health. Potential means of realizing these goals include fiscal and regulatory incentives, methods for monitoring forest health, guidelines for wood harvesting and procurement, defining efficiency standards, and regional agreements in order to ensure Vermont biomass is competitive.

State Rep. Chris Bray was the original sponsor of the BioE Group legislation and now is BioE Co-Chair.

“Ever since I logged over 30 years ago,” Bray said, “I’ve been hearing Vermonters saying ‘We ought to use our forests for more of our own energy.’ Well, why weren’t we? I thought we ought to get some answers, especially before energy prices go back up and pressure on the forests increases.”

“The BioE Group is working,” said Bray, “to develop a balanced assessment of how we might do this well—that is, to develop this economic opportunity for more local, renewable energy, while also ensuring that our practices keep the forests healthy for another hundred years.”

The BioE Group’s draft report will be due out this fall. It will be published and a series of public meetings will be held in order to give Vermonters a chance to comment. The group will then reconvene, consider the comments, and draft the final report in time for the next legislative session.

What Do You Think? Attend a Public Forum on BiomassSeveral Vermont organizations interested in the issue of biomass have convened forums across the state with the goal of engaging Vermonters in a conversation that looks at how — and if — wood from our forests can produce efficient, renewable energy while ensuring long-term forest health and maximizing benefits to communities.Join fellow Vermonters on July 8 from 6:30-9:00 p.m. in White River Junction at the Bugbee Senior Center to add your voice to this important dialogue.The forum is sponsored by the Biomass Energy Resource Center, Forest Guild, National Wildlife Federation, Vermont Chapter of the Sierra Club, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission. For more information, visit www.vnrc.org or call 802-223-2328.

Jake Brown is the Communications Director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.