By Mary Westervelt, MBA Candidate, Marlboro Graduate School

From “Energy and Resources: Community Scale Renewable Energy” with
Kelly Boe, Middlebury College
John Irving, BED (see presentation at end of this post)
Lynn Benander, Co-op power

Middlebury College Biomass Plant

Middlebury College Biomass Plant

Of all the fun facts and interesting anecdotes I expected to hear, I didn’t anticipate learning that renewable energy might be the most savvy investment Middlebury College has made in the last few years.  But check these numbers out:

In 2008, Middlebury College built a biomass gasification plant to replace some of their existing heating infrastructure.  Their original 2004 estimates projected that in 2011, #6 fuel oil would be about $1.40/gallon.  At that price, woodchips would be financially competitive up to about $75/ton.

In 2011, Middlebury College paid about $55/ton for woodchips and #6 fuel oil was $2.90/gallon.

Don’t look now, but it looks like renewables might just be a good investment!

With three compelling, but very different, stories to share, the Community Scale Renewable Energy forum was a fascinating look at these kinds of lessons, challenges and perspectives encountered in launching and running these initiatives.  And not surprisingly, all three touched on themes familiar to all of us: stakeholders, environmental impacts, and money.  Money, money, money.

For an investor like the attendee seated next to me, speaker Kelly Boe’s Middlebury College story is very compelling.  Not only did they make the numbers work, they did so while staying true to their twin guiding missions: 1) reduce the College’s carbon footprint to help meet the zero net emissions by 2016 goal and; 2) ensure a reliable and financially viable heating system for the College.

In 2011, the biomass plant offset an estimated 1 million gallons of fuel oil.  While using biomass isn’t perfectly carbon neutral (how did those trees get to the College?), that’s certainly a lot of carbon that never left its deep earthly home.

The McNeil Generating Station, managed by speaker John Irving, is a 20+ year case study in biomass based electricity generation.  Co-owned by several utilities, 50% by Burlington Electric Department, McNeil is the largest woodchip fueled power plant in Vermont.

With a 20 year record of operations, Irving understands the ins and outs of the complex wood harvesting debate that rages around the biomass movement.  He’s been through the ups and downs of the market, been lauded and vilified, and kept the plant financially viable throughout the journey.  He’s proud of the role they play as a service to the city of Burlington, as well as their good neighbor commitment.

One comment that caught my attention: the McNeil plant wouldn’t have been possible without the invention of the whole tree chipper.  The ability to use “waste” wood like the tops and branches of the tree is a charged topic, as that waste is the fodder for the next generation of trees.  When gently challenged by those in the audience skeptical about the true carbon cost of biomass plants, Irving confirmed that yes, woodchips require, well, trees.  And, yes, that means taking important minerals and reseeding fodder out of the forest.  But we’re exploring how to put some of that back through ash redistribution; the Public Service Board keeps us on our environmental toes; and we’re exploring our biomass sourcing options.  As to the validity and strength of those responses, I’ll let the reader draw their own conclusions.

While Boe and Irving clearly know their stakeholders and keep them firmly in mind, Co-op Power offered a radically different vision for community scale renewable energy.  Lynn Benander might argue that money is essential, after you’ve aligned your stakeholders toward a common vision.  In true cooperative enterprise fashion, Co-op Power seeks to empower diverse stakeholders to mobilize around local energy initiatives.  They have some big goals, like Northeast Biodiesel, but also support their member’s decentralized, locally-driven projects by providing technical, legal, financial & operational support.  The challenge Co-op Power faces is not whether they’re meeting the “community” goal, but the “scale” goal.  Whether the Co-op Power model can succeed at a larger scale has yet to be confirmed, but if they can, it will be something special to watch.

Given the very different approaches represented, a quick, informal attendee survey was in order.  Not surprisingly, different projects resonated with different attendees.  Co-op Power’s model offers a great deal of inspiration and a very deep dive into the question “who’s power is it?”  If we’re talking about the community, how are we defining, and empowering, that community?

But for the pragmatically-minded, the goal might be to get as much renewable energy constructed as possible.  For those folks, replicating a Middlebury model is the way to go.  If one small college in Vermont can replace 1 million gallons of fuel oil in 1 year, how can we replicate that across the country and take a big bite out of our carbon footprint?  Can we make other renewable sources financially competitive with woodchips?  What’s the future of other biomass feedstocks?  Certainly these are questions worth exploring if we’re to take up the rallying cry of our closing speaker.

Finally, there was the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  While we touched upon the subject, the panel and audience wisely avoided wading too far into the biomass controversy.  Moderator Ralph Meima shared a personal anecdote about the surreal experience of being blindly vilified as a member of the Brattleboro Thermal Utility board.  His words served as a reminder of the importance of staying open and flexible in our pursuit of slow living sustainability.  As one skeptic said after the fact, “it’s clear that biomass is part of the picture.”  How big a part it can ultimately play is up for debate.

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Here’s John Irving’s presentation:

Sls 2011 irving [slideshare id=8438488&w=425&h=355&sc=no]

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