Is burning wood really renewable? Reconsidering biomass in Vermont

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 6:07 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - While Burlington’s McNeil Generating Station continues to pump out electricity for the city, Green Mountain Power and other utilities, the fate of biomass hangs in the balance. Our Kevin Gaiss looks at how burning wood fits into the state’s climate goals.

A cold, gray day means the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington is up and running, burning wood to generate electricity for the city and beyond.

“It’s part of a generation mix we have in Burlington,” said Darren Springer, the general manager of the Burlington Electric Department.

That mix includes hydro, solar, wind and biomass, all considered renewable generation.

Burlington Electric sees biomass or wood burning as critical for their city. It supplies Burlington with about one-third of its power annually, and they believe it has major benefits over other renewables.

“We can actually use this as what we call a dispatchable plant. This plant can be run when we need power and it can run 24/7,” Springer said.

So when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, biomass can fill in the energy gap, similar to burning fossil fuels. Biomass plants also have the added benefit of being one of the only markets for waste wood.

But there is tension over whether biomass has a place in Vermont.

“Wood energy is renewable because trees regrow,” Springer said.

But not everyone agrees. Burlington has its own capacity, but facilities like Ryegate account for about 3% of the state’s total electrical generation. Whether it should be called renewable is still up for discussion.

“Biomass should be a part of Vermont history; it should not be a part of Vermont future,” said Zach Porter with Standing Trees.

Porter wants to see biomass struck from the state because of carbon emissions and health concerns.

Biomass-generated emissions don’t count toward our state’s greenhouse gas emissions because we have more trees in the ground than we are burning. But Porter believes not only should the emissions count, but we should cut the cord.

“By definition, if it’s not low-carbon, it shouldn’t be part of our clean energy future,” Porter said.

And the state itself is taking a hard look at biomass-generated power.

“What was the recommendation from a climate perspective around the future use of biomass,” said Jane Lazorchak of the Vermont Climate Action Office.

Recommendations to the Climate Council on Biomass have included not creating any new biomass electric generation facilities. Though a biomass task group within the Climate Council most recently tabled recommendations on the future of McNeil and Ryegate, split between the negative impacts of burning wood fuel and the positives of electricity generation and taking waste wood.

Others want to know more about what a plant shutdown and its timeline would mean.

“What to do with those plants in their long-term operations,” Lazorchak said.

Vermont will be looking over the next year at how biomass should be counted in the greenhouse gas inventory and its place in the renewable energy sphere.