Biomass Boilerhopping in Burlington

Biomass heating installations in northern Vermont are far from sparse.
By Anna Simet | April 22, 2016

In Burlington, Vermont, sustainable forestry is a way of life. On a crisp spring morning in late March, participants of the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo biomass boiler bus tour were able to witness that assertion firsthand, after observing a brilliant sunrise and a ride through region’s endlessly rolling, heavily-forested countryside that included a pass by Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s third-highest, most-recognized mountain that is featured on the state quarter.

Admirable are the region’s historic, well-preserved architecture and style (in fact, Vermont has 40,000-plus buildings of historical significance on the National and State Registers of Historic Places), and the trend of up-keeping and renewing old structures makes biomass heat a good fit as replacements of aged fuel systems, and a solution to satisfy desires to lower carbon footprints while using locally sourced fuel. The seven systems that were featured on the tour were all specially designed to fit into each structure’s existing footprint and structural requirements, and meet unique, specific demands. They included: Norwich University’s two 400-horsepower (HP) Messersmith wood chip-fired steam boilers; Granite Industries’ two 56-kilowatt OkoFEN autopellet boilers; Montpelier District Energy’s two 600-HP, 20-MMBtu, AFS woodchip boilers; the Montpelier Senior Center’s 60-kW pellet boiler by SunWood Biomass; a private residence using a 26-kW Pellergy Alpha wood pellet boiler; the South Main Apartments using two 100-kW wood pellet boilers; and the Green Mountain Club, which uses one 60-kW cord wood gasification boiler.

Tour guide Paul Frederick, wood utilization specialist at the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, discussed the importance of forest sustainability in the state, and emphasized the significance of maintaining and growing the base of low-grade wood end users. “When we start looking at how much wood is used for fuel in the state, roughly 30 percent of our total wood harvest in the state ends up as wood fuel in one form or another,” Frederick said. “The majority is residential fire wood. We estimate that 347,000 cords of wood every year go into residential heating in the state—that’s a little over 80,000 households using wood in one form or another for supplemental or primary heat.”

 In addition, about 12 percent of households are now using at least some pellets for heating. “That’s up from about 3 percent seven or eight years ago,” Frederick said. “There has been enormous growth in residential pellet heating. We’ve seen some growth in cordwood, but not nearly as much.”

A shift in Northeast forestry markets over the past 20 years has created a significant decline in the paper industry—many mills have closed or throttled back on production—and though one large-scale, wood-using power plant was built, much of the market for low-grade wood has been lost. “When we start looking at sustainability, we look at what we’re growing and what we’re moving annually—we currently grow more than twice what we’re harvesting and losing to natural mortality in the state of Vermont,” Frederick said. “To some extent, it varies from year to year with harvest and insect and disease outbreaks, but in general, over the past seven or eight years, it’s averaged over twice what we’re losing. Through some work with the Biomass Energy Resource Center, we estimate that we’ve got about 900,000 green tons of low-grade wood available [annually], that could be used for energy purposes. That available wood is what we’re shooting for in our planning processes in our [state] comprehensive energy plan, as a way of using more renewable fuel.”

Author: Anna Simet
Managing Editor, Biomass Magazine