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8: County becomes 'greener'

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Enthusiasm for green energy burned bright in 2009 as more local groups embraced alternative means for heating their homes and businesses.

In January, Middlebury College fired up its $12 million biomass gasification boiler to convert wood chips into steam for heating. The new plant marked a huge step forward for the college toward its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2016: Using wood chips harvested within 75 miles of the institution, the boiler is anticipated to cut the college’s carbon dioxide emission by 40 percent while saving the school roughly $700,000 each year.

But the college’s gleaming new boiler was just the start of local advances toward green energy during the year. In March the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) launched a renewable energy cooperative that linked members with wood pellet fuel and related equipment, with an eye toward providing more “green” supplies and technology in the future. ACORN partnered with Bourdeau Brothers for the cooperative, taking on the marketing and sales rights to a North Clarendon mill’s entire estimated 10,000-ton-per-year output of pellets.

Greg Pahl, interim board president of the energy co-op, said a second pellet mill could be built in Addison County in the future if demand out-paces the North Clarendon facility’s 20,000-ton-per-year capacity. ACORN members believe demand will only increase as fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive. A feasibility study for an Addison County pellet plant got under way a few months later, in August.

Pellets and biomass aside, other forms of renewable energy began percolating in the county as well. On Bridport’s Blue Spruce Farm, Montpelier-based company Algepower began investigating the feasibility manufacturing biodiesel from algae fed by manure. The Audet family’s Blue Spruce Farm was the first in the state to begin selling electricity generated by a methane digester fed by manure, and the algae project was just that latest effort that some Addison County farms are making to convert the byproducts of dairy farming into profitable alternative energies — a lifeline for farms struggling to get by in tough financial times.

Later in the year, as the summer wound down, municipalities in Addison County also began eyeing the $4.6 million in federal stimulus funds that had been earmarked for renewable energy initiatives in the Green Mountain State. The Addison County Regional Planning Commission received an $80,000 grant to help area towns compete for some of that money, which will be available for projects ranging from replacing light bulbs to weatherization to studying ways to make street lighting networks more energy efficient.

Come fall, the town of Middlebury and Middlebury College officials began exploring a possible “biomass purchasing cooperative” and renewable energy development fund, a project the officials hoped might pave the way for more small biomass facilities in the Middlebury area.

The early conversations focused on solving the “supply problem,” as Assistant Town Manager Joe Colangelo put it — figuring out how multiple plants could be fueled by wood chips and other biomass materials from the surrounding region.

Similar conversations about biomass energy continued statewide, and Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, stepped to the forefront of some of those talks. Bray in 2009 took up the co-chair of a legislative committee that will spend the next few years exploring how Vermont can turn a greater proportion of its low-grade forest wood into an important renewable energy resource.

This year approximately 60 percent of the state’s energy needs were met through petroleum products, the lion’s share of which is imported from overseas.

On the flip-side, 75 percent of the Green Mountain State is covered in forest, but Vermonters obtain only around 6 percent of their energy from wood. More residents and businesses are turning to wood for their energy needs as oil prices rise, as evidenced by the greater use of residential pellet stoves and wood chip furnaces, such as the one currently in use at Mount Abraham Union High School.

Bray said he sees a potential “win-win” by expanding the responsible cultivation of wood for renewable energy.

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