Middlebury refines biomass energy plans

MIDDLEBURY — A consultant and a local biomass study committee will look at the feasibility of carving Middlebury into five separate energy districts, with the concept of endowing each with a communal woodchip heating plant.
The study group, with the aid of a consultant and a combined total of $250,000 in state and federal funding, has been working since last year to see if Middlebury has the potential to establish one or more biomass plants to provide a cost-effective, renewable energy alternative for local businesses that now rely on imported fossil fuels for heating.
Co-chaired by Middlebury Assistant Town Manager Joseph Colangelo, the committee on Tuesday unveiled some initial findings in its ongoing study of potential local applications of biomass technology.
With assistance from the Montpelier-based Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC), the group initially looked at the potential of a single biomass facility. Then the focused shifted to eight stand-alone biomass/pellet energy systems to serve either one major user or clusters of multiple businesses.
Each of the biomass-fueled heating systems would provide a hot water central heat plant to a network of buried distribution pipes connected to all the buildings among the users. Colangelo said under this scenario, the biomass plants could be owned collectively by the users, or by one business that would sell the energy.
In each of the eight cases, users would face some up-front capital costs, ranging from $36,750 to $5.8 million for construction of the biomass plants, according to study results. But the payback, accrued by using cheaper, renewable woodchip fuel could be dramatic, according to the study — to the tune of $2,508 to $2 million in the first year alone, depending on the size of the business. Committee members on Tuesday declined to disclose the names of the specific businesses until they have been officially informed of the study results.
Montpelier recently received an $8 million federal grant to build a community biomass plant. But, Ashar Nelson of Bread Loaf Corp., project manager for Middlebury’s biomass study, said it quickly became apparent through research that Middlebury, unlike Montpelier, is not suited for one biomass plant to serve the entire town. Middlebury, Nelson noted, doesn’t appear to have the business/residential density to got for a single community-wide plant. So now the study will focus on groups of potential users for what committee members are calling “biomass mini-districts.”
“This is a model that’s really being used in some European countries,” Colangelo said of the mini-districts. “It’s about getting away from these large heating districts and instead going smaller. A lot of the capital cost is in installing the pipe and it doesn’t make much sense to lay pipe in rural areas of Middlebury. You never recapture that cost, really. It can be economically feasible and a good business model if you keep that piping to a minimum.”
The five mini-districts under consideration, according to Colangelo, include the northern section (industrial park) of Exchange Street; the Porter Medical Center campus; a portion of Route 7 South, between Creek Road and Boardman Street; a swath of the downtown, northwest of Main Street, that includes the Marble Works; and a section of downtown that encompasses Court Square and part of Washington Street.
Nelson said that with assistance from BERC, he hopes to come up with more details on the five biomass mini-districts by early this summer. If that scenario seems viable, the committee will turn its attention to other details, such how to ensure the flow of enough wood chips to feed the biomass plants; financing for such a project; and whether the plant(s) could function in a sustainable, environmentally conscious manner.
The town will have the advantage of learning some lessons along the way from Middlebury College, which early last year brought on line a $12 million biomass gasification boiler that is anticipated to cut the college’s carbon dioxide emissions by a staggering 40 percent, or 12,500 metric tons annually. Several college officials — including Jack Byrne, director of Middlebury’s Sustainability Integration Office — are serving on the town’s biomass committee.
Colangelo stressed the committee is not pushing for any specific project.
“We are trying to be mindful as a committee to let the data speak for itself,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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