Montpelier Approves State’s First Downtown Heating System

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When Liz Edsell and her husband were deciding where to buy a home last year, they found that nearly every central Vermont town was trying to address its energy future.

"It’s something that Vermonters want to see local action on – not just leave it to the state, or not just leave it in the hands of the energy companies," Edsell says.

Montpelier has a plan. It wants to help expand a state heating plant and then pipe excess heat to public and private buildings around the downtown and sell it. Proponents say it’s a good environmental investment. But there’s been plenty of debate about the idea.

Now, Montpelier’s City Council has approved a plan to upgrade and expand the state’s wood-fired heating system for downtown buildings. The Council passed the plan during a special meeting Wednesday night, reversing its decision to kill the project.

That decision came after more than 60 percent of voters approved contributing $3 million to the $20 million project.

"The residents of the city of Montpelier have had the foresight to approve this project," says Governor Peter Shumlin. His administration gave the city a deadline of this Friday to decide whether to go ahead because the state wants to order new boilers.

"We know that it is going to save us all money, reduce our carbon footprint and serve as an example of how we should be heating cities and towns across Vermont," Shumlin says.

But some city councilors worried about the finances and whether there will be enough customers for the heat. So, last week, the council voted, 4-to-2, to kill the plan.

"It’s not the role of the City Council to predict fuel prices," says Tom Golonka, who was among the four opponents on the City Council. He sits in a booth at a restaurant in the Capital Plaza hotel, which, he says, illustrates his concerns.

"The connection cost for this building was about $130-$180,000," Golonka says. "That’s a large capital investment for a private company to absorb."

Golonka says he’d prefer Montpelier use the funds to retrofit its own buildings, instead. But Golonka is flipping his vote because the state has agreed to a proposal that he says helps the city keep control over costs.

Once the bidding process is complete and costs are known, a building that could benefit is the Union Elementary School. Last year, this school burned more than 60,000 gallons of heating oil.

Liz Edsell, field director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, sits outside the school on a picnic bench. She and her husband bought a house here last year, and she thinks the district heat project makes sense for Montpelier.

"The cost of oil is rising and rising, so having our city buildings be reliant on that means we are facing a future of rising taxes," Edsell says.

"This is not rocket science," argues Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, who also supports the project. "Our country has been founded on municipal investments and I don’t see this project [being] markedly different than other municipal investments."

Hollar has successfully renegotiated a deal with the state that he says will guarantee that certain charges to the state will be phased in based on usage by city customers.

"The challenge that we have with this project is that we won’t know precisely what our cost are until November," Hollar says. "The state has to order its boilers within the next week or so, so we’ve got a brief gap where one of us has to take a leap of faith."

Hollar says he’s confident that the city’s cost will be well below its revenue because he has already convinced the state to share in any potential risk.

And those councilors who had opposed the plan hope that new agreement with the state will allow the city to create public-private partnerships in the future.

You can find city council minutes from Montpelier and government documents from 100 other Vermont cities and towns at VPR’s Public Post. While you’re there, post a comment or send a message on Twitter using the hash-tag #Public Post to open a discussion about an issue in your town.

Public Post: Read Mayor Hollar’s statement

Earlier: Montpelier Votes To Kill Heating Project

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