Brattleboro looks at wood-chip power system

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(Host) A group in Brattleboro is looking into a wood-chip fired system that would generate electricity and provide heat for much of the town.

The idea is already generating interest.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Members of the Brattleboro district energy group say their idea could provide stable, locally-produced energy for the long term. It could also drastically reduce local greenhouse gas emissions.

Alex Wilson is among the project’s supporters. He’s president of Environmental Building News. The Brattleboro company provides information to industry professionals. He says the group would like to build a district energy system.

(Wilson) “What we’re envisioning with the Brattleboro district energy project is a power plant that burns wood chips to generate electricity and then we would capture the waste heat from that and deliver it through a network of underground insulated pipe to serve the businesses and residents in the downtown Brattleboro area.”

(Keese) Wilson says the system would start with the downtown core, but could expand to heat most of the town.

He says district energy is widely used in Denmark and Sweden. It’s also used in some of the bigger U.S. cities for large blocks of buildings..

(Wilson) “So if you’ve been to New York and see steam sifting up through the streets, that’s steam leaking out of the district energy systems in the city.”

(Keese) But Wilson says those systems use fossil fuels and heat with steam, which is very leaky. The Brattleboro system would cycle hot water in a continuous loop through the basements of businesses and homes.

He says new technologies for moving hot water are extremely efficient and almost pollution free. Several years ago he convinced officials to install one of these systems at Brattleboro Union High school.

(Wilson) “And that system burns as many as two tractor-trailer loads of wood chips per week and in the process generates a trashcan full, a couple of cubic feet of ash, but very little actual smoke or particulate.”

(Keese) Wilson says that most electrical plants waste a lot of energy as heat. The Brattleboro project could be one of the first of its kind in the country to capture that heat and use it, at what they say would be enormous savings.

Proponents say the system will pay for itself in savings and by selling electricity. But it won’t be cheap to install.

Hervey Scudder, one of the initiators of the idea, says the feasibility study will cost half a million dollars. The system could cost $30 million to install.

(Scudder) “And the financing will depend in part on how successful we are in persuading the large downtown users to commit to buying this heat over a long period of time.”

(Keese) Bruce Bentley of Central Vermont Public Service was at the recent meeting on the project in Brattleboro. He says the utility would most likely buy the electricity the plant would produce. He says CVPS might even consider investing in the project, as part of a solution to future transmission needs in the so-called southern loop.

(Bentley) “There’s certainly a good number of people that are taking it seriously. That was a pretty well-attended meeting. So I think it depends on where the idea goes next.”

(Keese) Local committees are already forming to investigate different aspects of the plan.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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