Montpelier declares first district heating season a success

Heat Plant

Will Colgan (right) of NECI speaks about his experience with Montpelier’s district heat system Friday. He was joined by Montpelier Mayor John Hollar (left) and City Manager Bill Fraser. Photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

More than 20 downtown Montpelier buildings — including city hall, the police and fire stations, the elementary school, two churches and several private buildings — were heated last winter for the first time by a new state heating plant.

On Friday, city and state officials, the contractor who installed the system — the first in New England, according to Montpelier Mayor John Hollar — and one of the private customers who purchases heat from the system celebrated the project’s first winter heating season.

District Heat Montpelier is a municipal utility that purchases biomass energy produced by the plant and distributes it via a network of underground pipes carrying hot water to customers connected to the system. The plant, located behind the Department of Motor Vehicles, burns wood chips to produce hot water.

The first year of the system was deemed a success, with strong, reliable heat delivered and no problems reported, officials said.

Also on hand at Friday’s ceremony were Montpelier City Manager William Fraser; Assistant City Manager Jessie Baker; Montpelier Energy Committee Chairman Tim Shea; New England Culinary Institute staff member Will Colgan; and several others with a hand in the project’s development and operations, including TJ Kingsbury of Kingsbury Companies LLC, which installed the underground system in downtown Montpelier, and project manager Harold Garabedian.

Hollar, who works at the State Street law firm of Downs Rachlin Martin, said his office is one of those private buildings connected to District Heat Montpelier. He said that during this past winter, one of the coldest on record, “The heat was always on, it was always reliable.”

The same was reported by Colgan, who said the restaurant run by the culinary school on Main Street had an aging heating system and joining the system was a good decision.

“It performed really well, it’s been really good,” he said.

Hollar said the project goes a long way toward the city’s goal of Net Zero Montpelier, which aims to have Montpelier be the first state capital to obtain all its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

Fraser said he recalled someone talking about something like the underground heating system being developed downtown, and at the time, it seemed “far fetched,” but said today that far-fetched idea is benefiting the city’s environment and making a significant dent in its reliance on fossil fuels.

“Twenty years later, we’re here celebrating,” Fraser said.

Fraser said the system was “pushed to its limits and it worked” this winter.

Shea, chair of the city’s energy advisory committee, said the city plans to bring in more customers.

District Heat Montpelier was designed with capacity for adding in more customers, and that may happen in another year, said Fraser, saying with the first heating season now completed, the city will analyze how the system’s inaugural heating season went.

In 2003, voters in Montpelier approved spending $250,000 in a bond for the project. The city was later awarded $8 million from the Department of Energy to make the major project possible.

A mini-system to pilot the new District Heat system began in December 2013, and the full commercial launch was in October of last year.

According to a news release issued by the city Friday, the system is credited with reducing emissions from fuel combustion by as much as 11 tons a year.

The wood chips used to generate the steam, which is converted to hot water for the system, are sourced regionally in New England, including from Vermont, said Julie O’Tool Gutgsell, operations chief for the state Department of Buildings and General Services.

A total of 411,000 square feet of space in downtown Montpelier are heated through District Heat Montpelier, Assistant City Manager Jessie Baker said.

A few of the benefits of the system were highlighted in the city’s news release:

• Fuel cost stabilization for city government and the school department allowing tax dollars to potentially be redirected toward services or infrastructure rather than to pay rising oil prices;
• Keeping economic activity in the Northeast by buying wood chips from the region rather than more than 300,000 gallons of oil;
• An economic development opportunity in downtown Montpelier by providing a cleaner and potentially cheaper source of heat for private building owners;
• The removal of many private oil furnaces and underground fuel oil storage tanks to be removed from potential flood areas.

Amy Ash Nixon

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