Bloomer: Local wood achieves local good

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Bloomer: Local wood achieves local good

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 5:57am -- tim

by Ansley Bloomer, Assistant Director, Renewable Energy Vermont A healthy working landscape is a crucial part of Vermont’s identity. With almost 80 percent of Vermont covered in forested land, wood markets provide a sustainable economic solution for rural Vermont communities. Stewardship of these natural resources is essential, so historically we have relied on low-grade wood markets to incentivize the tasks essential to maintaining forest health.

However, this past year we saw a significant loss of low-grade wood jobs. The overall decline is due factors such as the loss of paper mills, warmer winters uncharacteristic of Vermont, as well as lower fossil fuel prices, all of which has sent shivers through the whole low-grade wood market value chain, spanning loggers, pellet mill workers, delivery truckers, and wood boiler installers.

With funding from the Statewide Wood Energy Team (SWET) grant, Renewable Energy Vermont convened a number of meetings with a working stakeholder coalition and created a 5-Year Action Plan to increase the use of advanced wood heat. The results of this study outline the unprecedented opportunity to achieve 35% of Vermont’s heating needs with local wood by the year 2030. In doing so, we could displace 40 million gallons of out of state fossil fuels, and keeping 120 million, yes that’s million, dollars in the state. 

Advanced wood heating is far from your traditional woodstoves or fireplaces.  With technology and automation, the days of shoving logs into a stove are over. With a simple turn of your thermostat, these systems will keep you cozy even on the coldest of days. Delivery of this fuel, in the form of either wood pellets or chips, is very similar to the delivery and usage of traditional fossil fuels. A delivery truck comes to your home or business and deposits pellets or chips into a bin or silo to be automatically fed into the boiler when needed.

As far as one can see, there are very few differences between using renewable local wood and foreign fossil-based heating fuels, however, the differences are in what you can’t see. Advanced wood heating systems have four characteristics that differentiate them from traditional heating methods. They (1) use highly efficient combustion technology, (2) create negligible emissions, (3) support the healthy forest ecosystems and sustainable forest management, and (4) utilize local wood.

Many Vermonters have already made the move to using advanced wood heating. One such example is Vermont Artisan Coffee. Hurricane Irene forced them to completely rebuild their world-renowned business, and when building their new 15,000 square foot coffee facility in Waterbury Center, they decided to install a wood pellet boiler with the help of Waitsfield based SunWood Biomass.

Why did they choose advanced wood heating over a fossil fuel option? They crunched the numbers, and though a woods system might cost a little more up front, they saw that a wood system made more sense over time. There is serious volatility with most fuel sources, and wood has time-and-again proven to be one of the most stable, and even-keeled, fuel sources. Not only does the wood heat user benefit, so does their community. 78 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuels leaves the region, so this was an opportunity to contribute more to the local economy.

Of course, the upfront cost of a system can be a barrier. This is the reason for a recent bipartisan bill introduced by Representative Bob Helm of Fair Haven and co-sponsored Representative Curt McCormack of Burlington. The bill would provide a sales tax exemption for these wood boilers, cutting down the up-front cost barriers for Vermonters, so they have the freedom to pick the energy source that will be most beneficial to both them, and the state, in the long run.

The legislature could choose to take this a step further to level the playing field over the life of the project as well, by eliminating the sales tax on bulk delivery of wood fuels, which its fossil fuel competitors are not subjected to. These are just a few of the many actions outlined by the coalition which created the 5-year action plan. There is much more that we can do to give Vermonters more freedom in their energy choices.

An unsung hero in the successful completion of wood heating to date has been the Clean Energy Development Fund, or CEDF. For example, the CEDF has helped many schools break down the barriers created by initial cost, so that they have the freedom to choose the fuel that will be safest, cleanest, and the lowest cost to taxpayers, rather than the one with the lowest upfront cost. Currently, ⅓ of students in Vermont learn in schools that are heating locally. Unfortunately, future funding for the CEDF is faced with uncertainty.  Projects like Vermont Artisan Coffee, or the Rumney School in Middlesex, wouldn’t be possible without funding from the CEDF.  Finding a funding stream for the CEDF is dire – and needs to happen soon.  

If you would like to learn more about advanced wood heating and its benefits, clear your calendar on November 29th, to join Vermont State Wood Energy Team and the Windham Wood Heat Initiative in Brattleboro Vermont for the Annual Wood Heat Users Conference. The gathering serves as an opportunity to bring together facilities managers from schools and institutions heating with wood chips and pellets, as well as folks who are considering making the switch to wood heat.

The steps highlighted in the 5-Year Plan represent some of the most approachable options when attempting to achieve our state’s 90 by 2050 total energy commitments, and can provide substantial support to Vermont rural economies. So in the coming months when you’re talking to your elected officials, making heating decisions, or looking for climate solutions, just remember – local wood achieves local good.