Expanding Wood Heat in Windham County

With a goal of expanding clean, modern wood heat in the region and drawing from local forest resources and businesses, the Windham Wood Heat Project is looking to help move more projects forward.
By Anna Simet | October 25, 2018

A fuel supply analysis done on Windham County, Vermont, found that it has the highest net available low-grade wood of any county in the state, which is roughly 78 percent forested. So when nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee reached a settlement with the state to close in 2014 and begin the decommissioning process, it made sense for $1.6 million of the $140 million in financial assurance funds to be used to implement advanced wood heat projects in Windham County, via the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund. “The ones we’re tapping into are specifically earmarked for the county, and those funds are for renewable energy generation and economic development,” explains Marion Major, energy planner at the Windham Regional Commission. “So, what better way to do that than support the wood heat economy?”

In response to a state request for proposals for a program centered on modern wood heat, the Windham Wood Heat Initiative was conceived amongst a large consortium of local organizations and partners that collaborated to outline the scope of the project, its focus and goals, Major explains. “After all of that was done, the program morphed into its implementation phase, and it made sense for it to be housed at the Windom Regional Commission, because we have the capacity to administer projects implemented here in our region,” she says. “So we took the lead after development.”

While the program’s ultimate goal was to support the local forestry economy and wood pellets, it couldn’t be responsibly implemented without first knowing of the region’s wood supply was adequate to support a number of new projects.

Scoping Out Supply 
To ensure a sustainable fuel supply for new projects supported through the program, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions conducted a thorough analysis of wood growth, use, and net wood availability for the county, and six surrounding counties in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  Some key findings included:

• The seven-county wood supply area contains over 2.2 million acres of timberland, over 80 percent of which is privately owned.

• The 20 schools and municipal buildings that WWHI sought to convert to advanced wood heat would use a maximum of 8,000 green tons of wood fuel per year, and should the WWHI be successful in reaching that goal, there is ample additional supply of low-grade wood resource available.

• Some 252,000 to 578,000 green tons are currently available in the region each year—annual forest growth net of current demand from other uses—and by 2035, 589,000 to 982,000 green tons will be available, as the forests of the seven-county region are growing much more wood than is being used each year.

• Wood may become feedstock for three pellet manufacturing facilities within economic trucking distance to Windham County, or fuel could take the form of semidry, refined (screened) wood chips for specialized boilers—fuel that requires air-drying to below 30 percent moisture content.

“The analysis found that this region has the most productive forests in the state, which was actually surprising, on a personal level,” Major says. “It is certainly wooded around here, but when I think about other places in Vermont, I think about even more forestry. So we found that yes, we are able to support this increased call for fuel.”

 Maura Adams, program director at project partner Northern Forest Center, says that while pellets have been the fuel of choice for most of the projects complete to date—eight installed, with two more under development—semidry chips, suggested by the analysis—would make a lot of sense for some, and perfectly align with the program’s goals. “It’s a newer technology, where green chips from the woods are dried for quite some time, and by the time they get to the system, they’re a lot more efficient, because water doesn’t need to be dried off. It makes a lot of sense of Windham County in a lot of ways, especially to better connect the wood coming from the county to installations.”

The problem is there currently aren’t enough suppliers of semidry chips, which INRS concluded is the most probable way that new WWHI projects could directly utilize locally grown and harvested wood. “We’re hoping there are other people who can get into that drying process, and take advantage of that business,” Adams says. “It could be a really good solution, and there are systems that are interchangeable with pellets or dry chips—it gives them flexibility for what’s available, and what makes sense of the time.

Right now, people are much more familiar with pellets, Major points out. “But we’re very interested in semidry chips—in our region, with the material available, it’s a more accessible avenue to become a truly local supplier,” she says. “We really want to support that market and see it flourish and the economic effect take hold. Until recently, for wood chips in general, the boilers have been on a much larger scale, but now with the semidry chips, it can service a more average-size, commercial unit. We’re really hoping to do more projects that use semidry chips.”

The Process, Projects
To date, the Windham Wood Heat Initiative has supported 24 projects through a variety of services. “We’ve done a lot of building assessments, for almost all of the public schools in the county, and we have installed nine new systems and are working on a couple new ones right now,” Major says. “There are also a few systems that have been more problematic than functional, which can kind of give a black eye to the industry in general, and we’re looking to replace those and get them back up and running so they have a good experience.” Altogether, through the initiative, over 73,000 gallons of heating oil have been avoided annually in the county, according to Major. 

To get involved in the program, there are no windows of opportunity or application period—it’s a rolling admission program, so as soon as a school, municipal building or nonprofit is interested, an audit and feasibility study can be set up. “When those are done, we’ll determine if it’s economic—or even physically feasible—to convert to wood heat in that establishment,” Major explains. “At that point, they are under no obligation to move forward. If they decide to move forward, we continue to work with them and provide technical assistance through the whole design and RFP process, all the way through the installation, really just being there to help. It’s a pretty serious project for someone to undertake, and we try to be as available and helpful as possible. We decided to add commissioning assistance into the program, just to make sure the installation is doing what it’s supposed to do, and functioning properly.”

As far as funding goes, the program, which began in 2015, is slated to wrap in June. There are still funds available, Major says, so there’s still an open call for more projects. “Because we work with schools and municipal buildings, we’re working with their timing and budgeting, so it’s moved pretty slowly there. We have opened it up to public service institutions like nonprofits, so that’s  picked up a little faster because the decision making process is different. There are a few projects on the cusp of deciding whether to move forward or not, so that will determine if we’ll have funds left after our deadline, and if we should extend the program or reevaluate how these funds are being used.

As for challenges for these projects, Major says low oil prices in recent years have been one deterrent. “It is on the rise though, and this is good for us and the industry, but it can be difficult,” she says. “Everyone knows oil prices are volatile and will go up, but in the short-term, for decision-making, it’s hard to justify that to those you’re responsible for, your voters or your town, if you’re a school. If you have an oil system that hasn’t reached the end of its lifespan, they have to ask themselves if it make sense to change it out—there’s a moral imperative of ‘yes, this is more environmentally friendly, but is it more economically responsible?’ It’s a tough thing for people to get past.”

Adams points out the value in developing cluster installations—a concentration of wood heat projects in a given area. “There is a lot of value in developing clusters, because you develop a lot of capacity there, and you can do tours and get a lot of buzz going there,” she says. “The state wood energy team had an event there last year, and they were able to bring 50 or 100 people together to go out and see several different types of boilers because there was such a concentration. If you can drive 10 minutes and see five different types of installations and get ideas of how they work and what context they’re right for, that’s a great thing to be able to offer.”

It’s exciting to get advanced wood chip and pellet boilers installed in these schools, municipal buildings and nonprofits, Major says, but it’s even more exciting to be a part of rural development revitalization, and supporting the forestry economy and the community around it. “It’s great keep everything really local and keep the dollars within the region,” she adds. “It’s a goal we have as an organization, and this program is really good at implementing that policy, and we’re happy to be a part of it.”

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Biomass Magazine


Windham Wood Heat Project Installations

Academy School, Brattleboro
Boiler type: Froling P4
Fuel type: pellets
CO2  avoided: 164.18 tons
Avoided oil: 14,748 gallons
Square footage: 79,758.75
Installer: ARC Mechanical Contractors

Esteyville School, Brattleboro
Boiler type: OkeFEN 32 kW
Fuel type: pellets
CO2  avoided: 12.32 tons
Avoided oil: 1,100 gallons
Square footage: 1,072
Installer: Lyme Green Heat

Floodbrook Union School, Londonderry
Boiler type: Froling T4 150
Fuel type: pellets
CO2  displaced: 143.65 tons
Avoided oil: 12,826 gallons
Square footage: 44,603
Installer: Sandri

New England Center for Circus Arts, Brattleboro
Boiler type: OkoFEN 60kW
Fuel type: pellets
CO2  avoided: 30.8 tons
Avoided oil: 2,750 gallons
Square footage: 7,200
Installer: Sandri

Green Street School, Brattleboro
Boiler type: Froling T4 150
Fuel type: dry wood chips
CO2  displaced: 88.02 tons
Avoided oil: 7,859 gallons
Square footage: 31,000
Installer: Froling Energy

Guilford Central School, Guilford
Boiler type: OkoFEN
Fuel type: pellets
CO2  displaced: 98.78 tons
Avoided oil: 8,820 gallons
Square footage: 28,000
Installer: Froling Energy

Marlboro Elementary School, Malboro
Boiler type: OkoFEN
Fuel type: pellets
CO2  displaced: 63.38 tons
Avoided oil: 5,659 gallons
Square footage: 18,804
Installer: Sandri

Putney Landing Affordable Housing Development, Putney
Boiler type: Froling P4 60
Fuel type: pellets
CO2 avoided: 62.58 tons
Avoided oil: 5,587 gallons
Square footage: 17,850
Installer: Al Jeffers and Sons Inc.
*Project under construction