Burlington approves plan that could cut UVMMC's fossil fuel consumption, despite opposition
Burlington’s City Council Monday evening approved a proposal to pump steam from the McNeil Biomass Plant to the University of Vermont Medical Center.
The city says the $42 million plan would cut the hospital’s consumption of natural gas for heat by at least 90%.
Opponents of the project filled city hall Monday night, saying Burlington should stop burning wood for electricity and heat.
New North End resident Dan Quinlan, with the Vermont Climate and Health Alliance, was one of many residents who told councilors society needs to act fast to cut greenhouse gas emissions, not invest more in energy sources that create them.
Burning wood or biomass for fuel is often promoted as a carbon neutral way to create electricity because trees sequester carbon as they grow; many scientists believe there are serious flaws with that methodology.
“Given where we are today, the McNeil UVM project no longer meets that standard,” Quinlan said. “All combustion, including the burning of wood, generates carbon pollution. Rather than investing in the McNeil Plant, we need to phase it out as quickly as possible.”
Despite overwhelming public comment against the proposal, the council approved the project Monday with a 6 to 4 vote, with two councilors abstaining due to conflicts of interest.
The council’s approval is a key stepping stone for the project, but it’s not the last hurdle. UVMMC still has to sign on and the proposal will have to go through Act 250 review.
"All combustion, including the burning of wood, generates carbon pollution. Rather than investing in the McNeil Plant, we need to phase it out as quickly as possible."New North End resident Dan Quinlan, Vermont Climate and Health Alliance
If it goes forward, the City Council is requiring annual audits of how sustainably Burlington Electric procures its wood. Additionally, the utility must present a plan for how to cut the climate warming emissions released at McNeil by 25% in the next five years, and 50% in the next decade.
Further, the council has called for Burlington Electric to study ways to transition McNeil away from wood as a fuel, to something less carbon intensive, like battery storage.
The council is also requiring that Burlington Electric install a system to dry wood chips before they get burned.
The city says this will make the plant 10% more efficient than it is now.
Forester and Burlington resident Harris Roen was one of the few people who urged councilors to support the proposal. He has shipped wood to McNeil from timber harvests that he says improved forest health.
“Properly managed forests are renewable resources — the ultimate renewable resource,” Roen said.
Both opponents and proponents of the project voiced concerns about environmental justice — whether over having a biomass plant right behind the predominantly lower income Old North End, or over sourcing electricity and natural gas from Indigenous land in Canada.
The city says burning sustainably harvested wood is less carbon intensive than burning fossil fuels, because carbon is recaptured when trees regrow.
But burning wood still produces more carbon dioxide at the stack than burning natural gas. And many Burlington residents and environmental groups say the planet doesn’t have time to wait for trees to grow and soak that carbon back up.
Two respected climate scientists agreed at a hearing in June. But the forest products industry insists that McNeil provides an important market for low-quality wood.
"Properly managed forests are renewable resources — the ultimate renewable resource."Forester and Burlington resident Harris Roen
The utility also says McNeil is an important source of dispatchable, on demand power, which is often available through the burning of fossil fuels. They point to McNeil’s importance regionally for reliable power from ISO-New England, the regional grid operator.
Some environmental groups in the state say McNeil should be phased out, just as the coal-fired Moran Plant was.
Those groups include Standing Trees, Conservation Law Foundation, 350vt.org and STOP VT Biomass.
During public comment, Dan Castrigano of Burlington warned City Councilors that climate activists were watching their votes and would remember them on Town Meeting Day.
“Please vote with science. And no matter what happens, we’re coming after McNeil,” he said. “We’re seeing through the greenwashing and the smokescreen, and we’re going to shut it down one way or another because it makes climate change worse.”
Carbon Pollution Impact Fee
The city council also approved a carbon pollution impact fee on Monday.
It will apply to new buildings that install fossil fuel based heating systems, like natural gas or fuel oil.
The fee will also apply to some existing large buildings in town, like those owned by UVMMC.
The city says it wants to push developers toward renewable fuel options and electric heat.
The new carbon pollution fee goes into effect Jan. 1.
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