District heat plan gets greenlight from Burlington City Council

Published: Nov. 20, 2023 at 6:20 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 21, 2023 at 10:07 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Should Burlington tap the city electric plant to help provide heat in the community? That’s what the City Council decided on Monday night.

For years, the so-called district energy plan has been a dream of some in the community. The idea behind it is to capture excess thermal energy and steam from the McNeil Generating Station and pump it into buildings to provide heat.

The plan got the greenlight from the City Council Monday night, on a 6-4 vote.

McNeil provides around 40% of electricity through biomass power for the city of Burlington.

City councilors voted to institute a measure that would capture more of the power McNeil is not able to utilize currently through waste heat, steam and an electric boiler, and pipe it underground to large entities like the UVM Medical Center.

“So three different energy sources that are going to combine to provide steam that will go up the hill and connect to the University of Vermont Medical Center and connect potentially to other customers along the way, as well, and be able to do so in a very efficient manner,” said Darren Springer of the Burlington Electric Department.

Burlington Electric says this singular project will reduce natural gas use in the commercial sector by 16%, and get the city 7% closer to its net-zero energy goals.

There has been significant pushback at times to district energy. Some in the city don’t believe burning biomass is a clean type of energy like the city and state have agreed on.

“This is actually a very comprehensive resolution that I believe will get us the absolute most from this project,” said Gene Bergman, P-Burlington City Council.

Bergman, who lives virtually in the backyard of McNeil, has been skeptical about the project but planned to support the resolution because there are assurances, including a pledge not to increase the amount of wood burned to meet the demand for heating.

There are also numerous points that ensure BED works to reduce McNeil’s environmental footprint, including an exhaustive study of the facility and emissions.

“We have got transition planning in here to try to get us to move as quickly as possible away from the consumption of the combustion, I should say the combustion of fuels for the production of electricity and, and thermal energy, things like thermal, geothermal and battery storage, as well as solar,” Bergman said.

Moving forward, Springer says he also is excited about the resolution including sustainability measures.

“All of the things that are in the resolution that are saying let’s look at being more efficient. Let’s bring ideas from the community. If we can, you know, even further improve the environmental footprint. If we do, let’s do that. Those are all things that we’re interested in, too,” Springer said.

Now that the City Council has passed the plan, Burlington Electric will enter into contract discussions with different entities involved such as the UVM Medical Center, and then they will move on to Act 250 permitting.

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