Montpelier building biomass district energy system

By Anna Austin | February 08, 2011

With the help of an $8 million Recovery Act grant, Vermont’s capital city will install a 41 MMBtu combined-heat and-power biomass district energy system that will provide heat to the statehouse and up to 175 other public and private buildings downtown, as well as 1.8 million kilowatt hours of electricity to the grid.

Though the grant was awarded just last summer, the concept of such a heating system isn’t new to Montpelier. In fact, the city has been kicking the idea around for about a decade, but has been on a fast track to implementation for the past two years, according to the Biomass Energy Resource Center’s interim Executive Director Adam Sherman.

Sherman said right now, the state operates a steam plant downtown that heats 17 buildings in the capital complex. Two of the three boilers at the steam plant are more than 64 years old and are in need of replacement. “The state is poised to partner with the city for this single plant that will serve the state’s facilities, as well as extend a district heating loop to service select buildings in the downtown area, first targeting city-owned buildings,” he said. 

Locally sourced wood chips will fuel the plant. In terms of how much a system like this would require, Sherman said it’s a moving target dependent on what the final build-out of the system is, but it will not be a huge volume—somewhere from 10,000 to 15,000 green tons annually.

According to a feasibility study performed by project partner Veolia Energy North America, projected construction costs for the preliminary build-out of the plant would be just under $22.8 million and construction would take 16 to 18 months.

BERC, a national resource center on biomass with a focus on thermal energy and combined heat and power, has been a partner in the project since the idea was conceived, according to Sherman. It has largely served as a technical advisor and assisted the city in several ways, he said, most recently in the request for proposals (RFPs) for the design and build process. “We’ve helped design and review the RFPs and bids submitted by contractors, and done some of the feasibility analysis at different stages in the game to see if the project pencils out both financially and logistically,” Sherman said.

 BERC has also been involved in some local citizen education and outreach efforts. “This is just to inform them of what the project involves and what it is and isn’t, in order to get clear and credible information out to voters,” Sherman said. “They should have a clear understanding of it so they don’t make decisions based on irrational fears or lack of information, which sometimes does play into the situation.”

 Gwendolyn Hallsmith, director of the city's Department of Planning and Community Development, said a charter change vote held in November passed by 80 percent.  Hallsmith added that the city is working on a timeline for the project, but Recovery Act funds must be obligated by 2012.