• An expansive view
    February 16,2014

    If you burn wood to heat your home, you may find reason to cheer the ruling by the Public Service Board last week rejecting a wood-burning power plant proposed for North Springfield.

    It was a decision of far-reaching significance, showing that the board was willing to take a broad view of the state’s power needs, its obligations to curb greenhouse gas emissions and the health of the state’s forest resource.

    Though about 75 percent of the state is covered by forest, the PSB found its forest resource is finite — an estimated 894,000 green tons of wood available to be harvested. Green tons are the kind of low-quality wood used for pulp, pellets, firewood or fuel for power plants.

    It was estimated that the North Springfield plant would have used 450,000 green tons each year, two-thirds of which would have come from Vermont. With more than 300,000 green tons already going to the two existing wood-burning plants in Burlington and Ryegate, the North Springfield plant would have pushed the state’s forest toward its limit, creating competition with burners of firewood and driving up the cost of wood.

    That effect was not by itself the reason the board rejected the North Springfield plant. Rather, it looked at the state’s forest resource and considered whether using it for the creation of electricity was the most efficient use. It found that wood burned in a power plant has a thermal efficiency of 28 percent. Wood burned to provide heat has a thermal efficiency of 60 to 80 percent.

    Opponents of the wood plant had raised questions about the plant on numerous counts, including noise, traffic and efficiency. The hearing officer who examined the case found that if strict conditions were imposed, many of those objections could be resolved. It was on more general questions involving the good of the state that the PSB found reasons to reject the plant.

    The board commented that the thinking about greenhouse gas emissions had “evolved” in recent years. As concern about climate change became widespread, the view held by many was that wood was a sustainable fuel because carbon released by the burning of wood today would be recaptured when forests grow back.

    That view has succumbed to the realization that at the smokestack wood produces more greenhouse gas than fossil fuels. Wood used to generate electricity emits four times as much carbon-laden emissions as natural gas. The North Springfield plant would have produced more than 448,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. This carbon would be recaptured by new forest growth only gradually throughout the next century, if it was recaptured at all.

    The board stated clearly that state law established it was Vermont state policy to reduce the production of greenhouse gases and approving the North Springfield plant would run counter to that policy.

    The board also found that the power plant would interfere with the “orderly development” of the Springfield region because of the constant truck traffic required to bring wood fuel to the plant. It would have been possible to impose strict conditions to mitigate the truck traffic, but even with construction of a new access road, the region would have had to put up with at least one truck every 12 minutes.

    The larger significance of the PSB ruling was in how it showed the board to be willing to take an expansive view of the general good of the state. The board found it was important for the state to be an effective steward of its forest resource. Thus, it found that allowing a huge proportion of the forest to go to one of the least efficient uses did not amount to good stewardship. The forest has now been protected for firewood production and other more efficient uses.

    Further, given the North Springfield plant’s poor efficiency, the good it would bring in terms of jobs and tax revenue did not counterbalance the harm it would cause in the release of greenhouse gases. The electricity it would have produced would be a plus, though it was a major strike against the plant that its developers had not secured power purchase contracts with Vermont utilities. Further, the good of the electricity produced did not measure up to the greater good that would be gained through energy conservation or other forms of power generation.

    The PSB has drawn fire for approving wind projects promising sustainability at what some view as a high cost. In the North Springfield ruling, the PSB showed it would critically examine claims of sustainability. It did not rule out all wood-burning plants for Vermont, but it set a high bar.

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