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Middlebury church goes ‘green’ with pellet boiler system

MIDDLEBURY — It was around 1904 that the late Col. Silas Ilsley — the Civil War veteran whose name graces Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library — pledged $75,000 to erect the resplendent Memorial Baptist Church building that stands proudly at 97 South Pleasant St.
More than a century later, congregation members have invested two-and-a-half times the church’s original construction price in order to endow it with a pellet boiler system aimed at reducing the structure’s fuel consumption and its carbon footprint for many years to come.
Church Trustees Jeff Rehbach and Jeff Flavell explained the congregation’s transition to a greener fuel system coincided with a major breakdown of the building’s 50-year-old steam boiler.
“It happened out of necessity,” Rehbach said of the recently completed project. “Just as (new pastor, the Rev. Stephanie Allen) was arriving, the boiler unit cracked on our old steam heating system. That meant something that we had been thinking about replacing became a very real issue.”
Church leaders priced new systems and learned they could replace their antiquated steam heating version and related conduits and radiators with a new fossil-fuel burning unit for upwards of $110,000. But officials decided to look into greener alternatives that would be more environmentally sensitive while reducing long-term fuel expenses. Heating oil is currently commanding an average price of $3.18 per gallon, which is down from $3.57 at this time last year, but church officials reasoned that the cost will inevitably surge as the resource becomes more scarce.
“We wanted to move away from fossil fuels and we set out criteria that identified the importance of helping the local economy, to employ local people, and to have a renewable resource that would keep the dollars in Vermont,” Flavell said. “We wanted to be carbon neutral, to the greatest extent possible; we wanted to be good stewards of the environment.”
MIDDLEBURY MEMORIAL BAPTIST Church Trustees Jeff Flavell, left, and Jeff Rehback stand near the church’s site that holds up to nine tons of wood pellets to feed a new pellet boiler system the congregation recently had installed. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
These principles guided church leaders to the idea of a pellet boiler. They began the process of interviewing vendors, culminating in the selection of Avonda Air Systems Inc. of South Burlington and SunWood Biomass of Waitsfield. They learned that a pellet boiler system would cost significantly more than a conventional system, but that the church would see fuel savings of 40 percent to 45 percent compared to what it spent on fuel oil last winter.
“There’s a tradeoff,” Rehbach noted.
So thanks to donations and loans, the Memorial Baptist Church assembled the $200,000 needed for its new pellet boiler system, which began operating around two weeks ago. It includes a boiler and an outdoor silo with a capacity to hold approximately nine tons of pellets that are automatically fed indoors to the boiler hopper by suction, through a 6-inch-diameter pipe.
It is estimated the church will burn around 18.5 tons of pellets per winter, according to Rehbach. The church is sourcing its pellets exclusively within Vermont at a price of $280 per ton.
The new system heats all of the church’s water and provides ample warmth while the building is in use for Sunday service and a variety of other activities during the week. Heat can be adjusted within five separate zones in the building.
Memorial Baptist Church will also maintain a propane boiler to ensure system redundancy and to produce heat/hot water during occasional cold days during the late spring and early fall, when cranking up the pellet system might not make economic sense, officials explained.
“It’s all new; we’re learning as we go,” Rehbach said.
They are also learning from the experiences of two other groups in town that have some experience with large-scale pellet boilers: Addison County Transit Resources and the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society.
So far, Memorial Baptist parishioners like the way their new system has been working.
“It’s been very effective,” Flavell said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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