Discussed since the early 1980s, a plan to harness steam heat from Burlington’s wood-fired power plant took a step forward earlier this month when city officials applied for an Act 250 permit.
The project would serve three clients with heat from the McNeil Generating Station: the University of Vermont, the UVM Medical Center and the Intervale Center. It is estimated to cost around $40 million to $45 million, according to Darren Springer, general manager of the Burlington Electric Department.
In an interview, Springer called the Feb. 1 land-use application a “momentous step.”
“We’ve never had a district energy proposal in all the many years and decades of looking at this project that’s reached the point where it’s been designed and engineered and ready for state permitting,” he said.
The Burlington District Energy project’s scope has been scaled back from its original vision. Just a few years ago, city officials had hoped to see the steam heat routed to several downtown locations including CityPlace, the federal building, Main Street Landing and city-owned buildings.
The state application details a project that would lay nearly 7,500 feet of 12-inch steam pipe from the McNeil plant to an existing steam line near the hospital. The line would be buried about 30 inches below existing roads between the plant and near the hospital entrance on Colchester Avenue.
The district energy project is a partnership among Burlington Electric, gas utility VGS and Ever-Green Energy, a Minnesota-based energy company. They also formed a local nonprofit, Burlington District Energy, to manage the project and its finances.
Springer said officials are still figuring out the finances. While the nonprofit can access about $5 million in federal money, he said, it would have to borrow the rest.
VGS President and CEO Neale Lunderville previously led Burlington Electric and said he has been involved with this project since around 2014. He said VGS is working to meet requirements set by the state Legislature in the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020, which calls for a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
While much of that work centers around energy efficiency, Lunderville said, another part is “alternative supply.”
“I think district energy fits that last category,” Lunderville said. “This is a project that would displace a very large slug of fossil gas for some of our larger customers, I mean, principally UVM Medical Center, but also, in part UVM itself.”
Lunderville noted that during his time at Burlington Electric, the scope of the district energy project was larger, with some configurations of the project including a steam pipe routed to downtown. By instead focusing only on the university and hospital, he said officials were able to “better scale it to what we and our customers were able to afford.”
As it awaits state approval to proceed with construction, the district energy team is working with the potential customers of the steam to ensure the terms and pricing work, Springer and Lunderville said. Springer said he hopes to finalize those details in the “coming weeks and months.”
Springer said the displacement of fossil fuel use is one of the project’s public benefits. He said the project “would help to reduce annual carbon emissions by approximately 13,000 tons in the city.” A city energy study found that the transportation and energy sectors collectively emitted 188,000 tons of carbon in 2021, according to Springer.
Mayor Miro Weinberger touted the district energy plan during a December press conference, calling it an important step in meeting the city’s climate goals.
Springer said that while part of the additional steam production would be from waste heat, there would also be added capacity from the McNeil plant, but he didn’t think it would change the plant’s permit. It would require some additional wood chip fuel, he said.
The use of wood chips to fire the power plant, however, remains controversial. During a Dec. 5 City Council meeting at which Springer and Lunderville provided an update on district energy, the public forum featured several speakers who argued that biomass energy is not renewable.
Springer defended the plant, saying it uses “sophisticated emissions controls” and says the wood chips they use are harvested “sustainably within a 60- to 70-mile radius of the plant.”
Disclosure: Neale Lunderville is a board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, VTDigger’s parent organization.
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