Farm and Forest Power: 25 by '25
Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie announced on Aug. 10 that Vermont joined the 25 by ’25 coalition. The coalition is working to produce 25% of the nation’s energy from farms and forests by 2025. Vermont is the first New England state, and the 14th state overall, to join the coalition.
Highlighting the 25 by ‘25 initiative, Gov. Douglas toured 3 farms last week, including Shelburne Farms. Shelburne Farms has a wood chip furnace in the Farm Barn, and a grass pellet furnace in the Breeding Barn. According to Mark Klonicke, the shop manager at the Breeding Barn, the grass pellet furnace has worked well to heat the space.
Vermont is increasing the production of energy from farms and forests through these initiatives:
--Cow power, which uses methane gas from manure to generate electricity. There are currently four farms in Vermont that are generating electricity from manure, including Clark Hinsdale’s Nordic Farm in Charlotte. The Department of Public Service in July awarded $485,000 to three farms in Franklin County to fund power line upgrades needed for the farms to deliver the electricity to the Vermont grid. I toured those three farms last month, and I was struck by the energy, excitement and expertise that the farmers showed about their methane to electricity plans. The state assistance funds came from the Clean Energy Fund, which was established in legislation last year. Steve Kerr, Secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, estimated that 20 megawatts of power could be generated if Vermont’s 225 largest farms used this technology.
--Biomass, which includes wood chips, wood pellets and grass pellets. Vermont currently has two wood chip plants—the McNeill plant in Burlington that has a capacity of roughly 50 megawatts, and the Ryegate plant with a capacity of roughly 20 megawatts. I toured the Ryegate plant last year, and the major complaint that I heard was that the plant operators were having trouble finding enough wood chips, and they were buying many of their chips from New Hampshire. According to Paul Frederick, a forester with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, there are a number of reasons why there are problems with wood chip supply, including lack of interest in logging, high workers compensation insurance costs, limitations on transportation weight on Vermont’s roads, and bad weather.
At least 26 Vermont schools have been converted from oil or electric heat to wood chip furnaces. CVU was converted last year, and just finished its first heating season with wood chips. Wood chip supply has been tight. The wood chip furnaces in schools replace burning more than 600,000 gallons of oil, and have saved more than $253,000 per year. The furnace conversions involve significant capital investments which the Legislature has funded with school construction aid.
Wood chips don’t make sense for smaller schools and homes because of high initial capital costs and some volatility in price and supply. For smaller heating uses pellets are more practical. There is no wood pellet producer in Vermont. A wood pellet producer in Jaffrey, NH is building a new plant in Utica, NY, and this manufacturer may be absorbing most of the available regional supply of sawdust, the main raw material for wood pellets.
Grass and blended biomass pellets provide more opportunities for developing jobs in Vermont. Biomass Commodities Corporation is working with Jim Bushey of Bourdeau Brothers in Middlebury to begin production this fall of pellets that are blended from grass and corn. Meanwhile, BCC is working to develop a new plant for producing pellets that blend grass and products other than corn, because corn is more expensive than other potential fuels. Sid Bosworth of UVM is studying which types of grasses would generate the highest yield in Vermont’s varied micro climates and soil types. Jock Gill of BCC estimated that it will take 3 to 5 years to determine the best type of grass or grasses to plant in Vermont, and one or two years for farmers establish high yield grass crops. After a crop is established, the grass would be harvested once a year, in the fall, and the field would be productive for 8 to 12 years before a new crop would need to be planted. There are few consumer furnaces being used in Vermont now that can use grass pellets, because grass pellets produce more ash in combustion than do wood pellets.
--Biodiesel is the third area of biomass activity in Vermont. A farm in Bennington, with the assistance of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, has received a federal grant of $98,000 for a demonstration project. At the farm, they’re growing sunflowers, soybeans, and canola and have purchased an expeller to grind the crops into oil. Another project has been approved for low interest loans from the Vermont Economic Development Authority for processing soybean oil into biodiesel fuel. The developers have also applied for tax credits from the Vermont Economic Development Progress Council. There are real questions about whether Vermont farmers can produce biodiesel economically, given that Vermont doesn’t have the huge expanses of land and economies of scale available in the Midwest.
Farm and forest power is very exciting. We can seek cleaner energy, preservation of Vermont’s farm and forest landscape, and more jobs in Vermont by maximizing farm and forest power.
The goal of reaching 25% of Vermont’s energy from farms and forests by 2025 is very ambitious. Vermont’s peak electricity consumption exceeds 1,000 megawatts. We already produce 70 megawatts from wood chip plants, and could possibly produce 20 megawatts of power from manure. There’s a very big gap between 90 megawatts and 250 megawatts.
There are a number of questions about the costs of farm and forest energy. Cow power can make economic sense now because more than 3,000 Central Vermont Public Service customers have voluntarily agreed to pay more than 4 cents per kilowatt hour in additional electric costs to support cow power. Other projects can make economic sense because utilities in other New England states will pay 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour for renewable energy credits that renewable energy projects can sell. The credits are needed by out of state utilities to fill renewable portfolio standards that are required in other states. As fossil fuel prices increase, renewable energy costs become more competitive.
There are environmental issues with some renewable energy. Burning wood and wood chips can produce more particulates into the air than burning oil. We have to make sure that we’re reasonably protecting our air quality as we encourage farm and forest energy production.
We also need to develop supply and demand that’s in equilibrium, and infrastructure that supports the farm and forest energy and end use by businesses and residents.
After spending a lot of time on energy issues for the last two years on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and the Joint Energy Committee, I’ve learned that there’s no one easy answer to Vermont’s energy future. Answers will probably come from a number of sources. It will take a lot of time, money, research and development to move Vermont responsibly to the 25 by ’25 goal.
If you have questions or concerns about energy or other legislative issues, I’d like to hear from you. Please contact me at 985-2329 or email me at email@example.com.