EAST CALAIS – Before the economy went into free fall, bringing oil prices down with it, Vermonters got a preview of how high heating fuel costs could hit their wallets. While homeowners and institutions were recoiling from the sticker shock of nearly $5 a gallon fuel oil in August, some organizations were well positioned to ride out the spike in prices.
For the past two decades, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations, school districts and the state of Vermont have been field testing an alternative to fossil fuels produced thousands of miles away. They have been using an abundant, locally available and sustainable source of energy: wood chips.
Inventor Carl Bielenberg helped install the state's first wood chip heating system not long after he moved to the state 27 years ago. Bielenberg, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, set up shop in East Calais and transferred his passion for inventing, which he had used to develop "appropriate technologies," including a treadle irrigation pump and a seed oil extractor in West Africa, to Vermont. He is currently working on small scale electrification and potable water systems for villages in Africa.
"I've been interested in energy for a long time," he said, sitting in the kitchen attached to his shop. "When I came to Vermont I looked at it with the same eyes I had in Africa – what can we do with the resources that we have?"
It was that impulse that led Bielenberg to work with Barry Bernstein, who is now his business partner and president of Washington Electric Cooperative, on the first school wood chip project in Calais.
Like many schools in the 1980s, Calais Elementary heated its facility with electricity. Bernstein wanted to know if it would be possible to heat the school with wood chips; Bielenberg said it would only work if the chips were fed into the boiler system automatically. When Bernstein asked how much it would cost, Bielenberg threw out a number: $100,000. The school was spending $37,000 a year on electric heat in 1986. He estimated it could heat with wood chips for about $5,000 annually.
Shortly afterward at town meeting, Bernstein proposed building the automated wood-chip plant to help the town save money. The ayes had it, and the project was built for $100,000.
Twenty-two years later, Vermont leads the nation in wood chip heating for schools. According to the Department of Education, 40 public schools now use wood chip systems or are in the process of building systems.
Up to 20 percent of Vermont students attend schools that use wood chips for heating fuel. Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, U-32 High School in East Montpelier, East Montpelier Elementary School, Spaulding High School in Barre, Williamstown Middle and High School, Cabot School, Randolph Union High School and Harwood Union High School all use wood chip systems.
"Many are clustered in the Northeast Kingdom," said Cathy Hilgendorf, the Department of Education's school construction coordinator.
"The systems are proven. It's not new or experimental technology," she declared. (The Calais system is still running.) "They are very good systems. They are very reliable. That's why they're such a success story in Vermont schools."
Bielenberg's Better World Workshop has installed about 25 of the wood chip plants in Vermont schools, in addition to systems for other institutions and businesses in Vermont and New Hampshire.
He believes that "wood is a wonderful fuel, not inferior to oil, especially as a boiler fuel." But he points out that in order for a system to be economically feasible, the project must have a large enough scale to produce a substantial savings in fuel costs: Wood chip systems are more expensive to build than those that use other fuels. In addition to the equipment, storage for the wood chips can also be costly.
Before January 2007, the Department of Education administered a program that paid 90 percent of schools' capital costs for building renewable energy systems. The incentive was reduced to 75 percent and then suspended in the 2007 legislative session. Sherman says the restricted access to capital has slowed construction of wood chip projects, but adds that some schools want to install the system "with or without state aid."
Bielenberg bases his argument for heating with wood chips on what he sees as the country's priorities for using its total range of energy resources.
"There's almost nothing that makes more sense than heating buildings (currently heated with oil and gas) with wood chips, because oil and gas are premium fuels," he explains. "Oil is a premium fuel because it's very energy-dense, it's very easily portable, it burns very well in car and truck engines and therefore it's very usable as a vehicle fuel. Wood chips can only be burned in a boiler – something that doesn't move."
Likewise, he adds, "Gas is a wonderful fuel because it's a very clean-burning fuel – it has relatively less carbon dioxide emissions compared to oil. Gas is also a wonderful raw material for making all kinds of substances because it's so chemically simple. We don't want to be wasting gas heating buildings." The use of those fuels, he says, has to be reduced to so they can be conserved for better uses.
Bielenberg believes that "the most efficient and elegant solution is a combination of four things: solar energy, wind energy, hydro power and biomass." But even with a disciplined approach to developing alternatives to fossil fuels, he offers a sobering assessment of the country's energy future.
He would like to see the nation create large solar collector plants in New England and elsewhere because he says an acre of solar collectors can produce as much as 4 million Btus when the sun is shining over the course of a year – 20 times the amount of energy that trees growing on the same land can produce.
"But the fact is that it takes a huge capital investment to do the solar thing, and not only a capital investment but an energy investment," he says. "What I'm concerned about is even if you take the best technology, which we have to do – we have to be much smarter in making investments in those technologies that provide the best energy payback – the problem remains that trying to base our economy on renewable energy sources is going to require not only a huge capital investment, but a huge energy investment that is going to be in direct competition with energy for consumption and capital for other activities."
Just because oil and gas are getting more expensive doesn't necessarily mean that renewable energy sources will become more competitive, because they take a lot of energy to produce, he says. "Until renewable energy sources become a significant part of the mix, we're still burning conventional energy to build (them)," Bielenberg adds.
Although wind and solar power are thought of as "free," Bielenberg estimates that to reduce our energy dependence on imported oil and gas by substituting wind and solar energy will require investing as much as a third of our current energy consumption for 20 years. And the demand for oil and gas to develop the infrastructure will immediately drive up the price of fossil fuels.
"Wind is relatively good in its payback," Bielenberg observes, "but even so, the construction costs of a wind turbine, the amount of concrete that goes into a foundation, the roads that have to be built, the power lines that have to be run – it's colossal."
So the question raised by all the renewable energy technologies is, "Can they be done when the resources that are required to do them are becoming very expensive?" Bielenberg says the answer is yes. "We have no choice but to makes them happen."MORE IN Central Vermont
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