Dairy cows, ski mountains, and leaf peeping…that’s what probably comes to mind when you think about Vermont. And it’s that last one—with 78% of the state forested—that has the biomass industry setting its sights on the Green Mountain State. Vermont’s existing wood energy facilities include two large-scale biomass power plants, several combined heat and power facilities, pellet mills, industrial heating projects, and tens of thousands of wood stoves. Additionally, four large-scale biomass power facilities are proposed for the state, which if built, will dramatically increase wood cut for fuel in the state. Until recently, it seemed inevitable that the biomass industry would milk Vermont’s forests for all they’re worth.
But several things happened during this past year to cool Vermont’s love affair with burning biomass, including the Massachusetts “Manomet” study, which illustrates the real climate impacts of burning trees for electricity, a grassroots citizens’ movement forming to oppose a biomass power proposal for Pownal, Vermont, and large green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council starting to walk away from an energy source they once embraced (NRDC’s “Our Forests Aren’t Fuel” campaign might as well have been designed with Vermont in mind).
Facing the likely closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, and increasing political will to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the State of Vermont is revising its Comprehensive Energy Plan. Along with solar, wind, small hydro-electric and efficiency measures, biomass energy is still very much on the table. To help set the record straight after years of pro-biomass misinformation by industry, government, media, and even some environmental groups, Partnership for Policy Integrity submitted comments to the Vermont Public Service Board outlining the public health, climate, and forest impacts from biomass energy.
· Demand for energy wood from existing and proposed facilities in Vermont (proposed demand is actually higher than in this figure) actually far exceeds supply, meaning forest cutting will need to increase dramatically to meet demand. Demand for biomass fuel will far exceed even commercial sawtimber harvests in Vermont.
· Logging whole trees that would not otherwise be logged is already standard practice for the biomass industry in Vermont – for instance, the website 50 MW McNeil facility states that “Seventy percent of the wood chips that fuel the McNeil Station are called whole-tree chips and come from low quality trees and harvest residues.” If new biomass power facilities were to come online, whole tree harvesting would inevitably play an even larger role.
· The goal of the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan is to move the state towards developing energy sources that, unlike fossil fuels and nuclear power, are abundant, safe, and healthy, and above all, do not exacerbate climate change. Biomass energy—biomass electricity in particular—does not meet these criteria. While all energy generation has impacts, no other “alternative” energy source has the carbon dioxide and air pollution footprint of biomass energy.