Vermont biomass power plant denied approval on basis of greenhouse gas emissions

In a final decision reached today on the fate of the 35 MW North Springfield Sustainable Energy biomass plant proposed in Vermont, the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) denied the plant a certificate of public good, stating that the project would interfere with the State’s ability to meet statutory goals for reducing greenhouse gases “as a result of the large annual releases of greenhouse gases that would result from combustion of the wood fuel.”

 

“This is an important decision for the state of Vermont, and nationally”, said Mary Booth, Director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, an organization that helped the citizen opponents, the North Springfield Action Group, contest the facility in front of the PSB.  “When policymakers see that bioenergy involves harvesting forests and burning the wood in low-efficiency power plants, they conclude that large-scale bioenergy isn’t compatible with greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

 

The 35 MW plant would have burned 450,000  tons of wood a year, most of which would have been sourced from whole-tree harvesting.  Carbon dioxide emissions would have been over 445,000 tons per year.  While the developer claimed there would be a greenhouse gas benefit, they testified they had not actually done any analysis to demonstrate a reduction in emissions.

 

Vermont has established a statutory goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50% from 1990 levels by 2028.

 

While the biomass project planned to use some thermal energy to provide heat for businesses in the industrial park where it was to be located, the plant’s peak efficiency still would have been around 28%. The average efficiency of the US coal fleet is 33%.

 

The PSB concluded that “the evidentiary record supports a finding that the Project would release as much as 448,714 tons of CO2e per year, and that sequestration of those greenhouse gases would not occur until future years, possibly not for decades, and would not occur at all in the case of forest-regeneration failures.”

 

The PSB also found insufficient evidence that the project was needed, stating that it would be more cost effective to do energy conservation, efficiency, and load-management measures.

 

See the Public Service Board decision here.

 

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Excerpt from PSB decision, pages 150 – 156

 

C.  General Good of the State – 30 V.S.A. § 248(a)(2)

NoSAG and VNRC/NWF each filed comments addressing the expected levels of greenhouse gas emissions and thermal efficiency that would result from the Project's combustion of wood fuel, contending that those high emissions and low thermal efficiency levels would not promote the general good of the State.

 

VNRC/NWF state that the PFD's finding that the Project would promote the general good of the State is unfounded because there is no evidence on which to find when, if ever, the Project would have a net carbon benefit.  According to VNRC/NWF, the failure of NSSEP to perform a carbon accounting makes it impossible to know whether the Project will help or hinder the State in meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals set forth in 10 V.S.A. § 578.  Additionally, VNRC/NWF assert that compliance with the ANR MOU will not ensure compliance with these greenhouse gas reduction goals because the ANR MOU is not intended to address gross  emissions from the Project, and will have only the potential to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions.  Without evidence demonstrating when the Project will result in a net carbon benefit and how it will help meet the State's greenhouse gas reduction goals, VNRC/NWF assert that the Project would not promote the general good.

 

With respect to thermal efficiency, VNRC/NWF contend that approval of the Project would not promote the general good of the State given the quantities of wood it would use to realize a relatively low thermal efficiency level, and the resulting pressure on the wood supply that would otherwise be available for more thermally efficient uses.  According to VNRC/NWF, the ANR MOU does not address the thermal efficiency of the Project, and compliance with that MOU would not ensure rapid forest regeneration after harvesting for the Project has occurred.  VNRC/NWF also argue that the low thermal efficiency level expected from Project operations would result in increased greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy produced when compared to generation relying on most fossil fuels.  Thus, absent a higher thermal efficiency level, VNRC/NWF contend the Project would not promote the general good and would interfere with the State's efforts to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

 

NoSAG contends that the Project would not promote the general good and would have an undue adverse impact on the natural environment as a result of Project emissions.  With respect to greenhouse gases, NoSAG notes that the Project would emit up to 448,000 tons of greenhouse gases each year it is in operation, which would frustrate the State's efforts to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals and would largely offset any greenhouse gas reduction benefits achieved annually by the work of Efficiency Vermont.  Further, NoSAG states that compliance with the ANR MOU would not address gross emissions, and even if compliance with that MOU would result in some net carbon benefit – an outcome NoSAG does not believe is supported by the evidentiary record – such a benefit would not be realized for decades and therefore would not contribute to the short term efforts needed to meet the statutory greenhouse gas reduction goals.  NoSAG also contends that the Project would be inconsistent with the Springfield Town Plan's provisions concerning air quality due to its greenhouse gas emissions as well as the emission of small particulates into the air.

 

 With respect to the Project's thermal efficiency, NoSAG states that the slowing growth rate in Vermont's forests, combined with an increased demand for wood fuel for more thermally efficient purposes, requires denial of a CPG for the Project to avoid diverting valuable wood fuel to an inefficient and polluting electric generating plant.

 

            The Hearing Officer concluded that compliance by NSSEP with the terms and conditions of the ANR MOU would allow for a finding that the Project would promote the general good of the State.  However, we decline to adopt this recommended conclusion in light of the Project's expected level of greenhouse gas emissions when its low level of thermal efficiency is taken into consideration.

In determining whether a project will promote the general good under § 248(a)(2), we consider whether the benefits of a proposed project would outweigh its potentially adverse impacts.     In this case, the evidentiary record supports a finding that the Project would release  as much as 448,714 tons of CO2e per year, and that sequestration of those greenhouse gases would not occur until future years, possibly not for decades, and would not occur at all in the case of forest-regeneration failures.  This annual level of greenhouse gas emissions is a significant burden to be weighed in determining whether the Project would promote the general good.

 

The evidence also shows that even under the most optimistic projections, the Project would operate at an annual average thermal efficiency of no higher than 28.1%, and that assumes full utilization of both the proposed District Heating System and any Community District  Heating System.  Since full utilization of the proposed thermal loop is unlikely, the efficiency of the Project is not likely to reach even a 28% thermal efficiency level.       While utilization of 224 waste heat from a generation project like the one proposed in this proceeding would provide a benefit to be weighed in our analysis of burdens and benefits, we find that the anticipated low level of thermal efficiency for the Project would not result in a benefit sufficiently significant to offset the burdens the Project would impose in the form of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Additionally, the State has established statutory goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont from the 1990 baseline, including reductions of 25 percent by January 1, 2012, 50 percent by January 1, 2028, and if practicable using reasonable efforts, 75 percent by January 1, 2050.       The record in this case supports a finding that operation of the Project would interfere with the State's ability to meet these statutory goals as a result of the large annual releases of greenhouse gases that would result from combustion of the wood fuel.  Use of a natural resource at the expected thermal efficiency level, which would in turn result in impacts that are contrary to the State's legislated policy goals, would not promote the general good of the State.

 

We agree with NSSEP that the version of § 248 applicable in this proceeding does not expressly require a carbon accounting.  However, it is still NSSEP's burden to demonstrate that operation of the Project would promote the general good, and this it has failed to do.  NSSEP's own witness, Mr. Ingold, acknowledged that it was important to understand when the Project would have a beneficial carbon outcome, and admitted that NSSEP had not undertaken any analysis to reach that understanding.        

 

Today's ruling is based on the evidence presented regarding this Project and should not be interpreted to mean that no wood-fired biomass facility could ever be approved under § 248.  Our concerns over the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the Project are deepened by the expected low level of thermal efficiency at which the Project would operate.  When we weigh the impacts from the Project's greenhouse gas emissions along with the low level of thermal efficiency, and account for the absence of evidence regarding if and when the Project would have a net carbon benefit, we conclude that the Project's burdens would outweigh its benefits.  It is possible that a project could be proposed with a high enough efficiency level that the balance between burdens and benefits may shift such that we could find a project would promote the general good.  In this case, NSSEP failed to present evidence sufficient for us to reach that

finding.

 

D.  COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC RECOMMENDED CONDITIONS

NSSEP filed comments seeking changes to several of the Hearing Officer's recommended conditions.  Additionally, ANR filed comments seeking changes to one of the recommended conditions.  Given our decision today, there is no need to address these comments since those conditions would only be relevant if we had found that the Project satisfied all of the substantive criteria of 30 V.S.A. § 248(b) and would promote the general good under 30 V.S.A. § 248(a)(2).  For the reasons discussed above, we have declined to make those findings.  Therefore, the changes recommended by NSSEP and ANR are moot.

 

X.  CONCLUSION

Based on the evidence of record, we find that:

 

(1)  The Project would unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region, with due consideration given to the recommendations of the municipal and regional planning commissions, the recommendations of the municipal legislative bodies, and the land conservation measures contained in the plan of any affected municipality;

 

(2)  The Project would not meet a need for present and future demand for service which could not otherwise be provided in a more cost-effective manner through energy conservation programs and measures and energy-efficiency and load-management measures, including those developed pursuant to the provisions of subsection 209(d), section 218c, and subsection 218(b)

of this title; and

 

(3) The Project would not promote the general good of the State of Vermont, with consideration given to the Project's expected annual greenhouse gas emissions and the low level of thermal efficiency at which the Project would operate.

 

 

 

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