BURLINGTON — Near the end of a marathon meeting Monday night, the Burlington City Council approved a district energy plan, decades in the making, to pipe steam from the wood-burning McNeil Generating Station to the University of Vermont Medical Center, which would use it to heat the facility.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd — and after the body heard dozens of pointed public comments, largely opposing the project — councilors voted 6 to 4 in favor of the $42 million project, with two councilors recusing themselves due to professional conflicts of interest.
Monday night’s vote is not the last stop for the project, which still needs to clear other hurdles, including obtaining an Act 250 permit, in order to move forward.
The plan is a collaboration between the municipal Burlington Electric Department, Vermont Gas and Minnesota-based Ever-Green Energy. Those entities have formed a nonprofit, Burlington District Energy, to manage the project — and would finance it through the sale of steam energy to the medical center, not by charging the city’s ratepayers or taxpayers.
The plan has generated significant controversy, sparking protests and a well-attended debate last June between Burlington Electric Department representatives and several scientists who have studied and oppose biomass.
McNeil can produce up to 50 megawatts of electricity — enough, roughly, to meet demand in the city. It produces power by burning wood chips, using largely low-grade wood such as branches or diseased trees leftover from logging jobs.
Advocates and opponents of the plan alike cite the climate crisis in their arguments. Those in favor say it would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Burlington by providing steam McNeil already produces to heat the medical center and thereby reduce UVM’s reliance on natural gas.
The project would cut natural gas use by Burlington’s commercial sector by approximately 16%, marking the “single biggest step” the city can take to become net zero, according to Burlington Electric Department.
“It’s unprecedented to have the technology available to us today, now, to meet that kind of fossil fuel reduction,” Jennifer Green, the city’s director of sustainability, told the council during her public comment.
Those who oppose the proposal point to the carbon emissions the plant releases, discounting the argument that, because trees grow to replace those that have been burned, the plant is carbon-neutral.
With that in mind, opponents have accused Burlington Electric Department of greenwashing, or labeling a plan or practice as beneficial to the environment or climate when it is not. The district energy proposal would extend the department’s future commitment to McNeil, which is already 40 years old, opponents have said. In the words of one Burlington resident who spoke to the council, the plan would “invest tens of millions of dollars in dramatically extending the life of technology that every climate scientist on the planet says needs to be phased down and responsibly replaced.”
Hayley Jones, Vermont and New Hampshire director of the environmental advocacy group Slingshot, called the project a “false climate solution” and said that “mental gymnastics” are required to consider McNeil carbon neutral.
Environmental groups that have opposed the proposal include the Conservation Law Foundation, 350vt.org, Standing Trees and STOP VT Biomass.
On Monday night, councilors voted on a seven-page resolution that gives Burlington Electric Department approval to enter into a letter of intent and subsequent contract for McNeil to provide Burlington District Energy with steam, to be purchased by UVM Medical Center.
Councilors Gene Bergman, P-Ward 2; Karen Paul, D-Ward 6; Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7; Mark Barlow, I-North District; Sarah Carpenter, D-Ward 4; and Joan Shannon, D-South District, voted in favor of the project. Councilors Melo Grant, P-Central District; Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1; Hannah King, D-Ward 8; and Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, voted against it.
Councilors Ben Traverse, D-Ward 5, and Tim Doherty, D-East District, recused themselves from the vote.
Several councilors said they had once opposed the project but changed their minds within the last few weeks after Burlington Electric agreed to a number of commitments, including one that would require the utility to reduce the emissions the plant produces.
Other commitments include: making McNeil more efficient, reducing stack emissions by 25% in the next five years and 50% in the next 10 years, assuring that additional wood will not be burned for the purpose of operating the district energy system, limits on future wood usage, analysis for future transition planning, and working with the UVM Medical Center on its electrification efforts.
Bergman recently changed his mind and now supports the plan, he said while explaining his vote.
“UVM made absolutely clear — made it clear here, made it clear in communications to me, continues to make clear in communications to everybody — that they’ve got no alternative that would come close to the emission reductions that will result from this project,” Bergman said.
Others weren’t swayed by the utility’s commitments. Hightower said she had spent hours on the phone with Burlington Electric Department general manager Darren Springer but was still uncomfortable with the long-term implications of the project.
Magee voted against it after expressing concern that the district energy plan “will greatly impact your ability to have decision-making power over the future of the plant, especially when we’re talking about the steam needs of the region’s only level one trauma center.”
Burlington Electric Department has argued that, in terms of energy reliability, the state needs McNeil to operate for the foreseeable future. The plant provides energy on-demand, which is harder to come by with other non-fossil fuel energy, such as wind and solar.
It also provides a market for low-grade wood. Loggers typically sell their leftovers — the tops and limbs of trees — to the facility. At this summer’s debate, a forester said the money he gets from selling low-grade wood helps him avoid cutting bigger trees.
“All the people who are here tonight demanding that we do the right thing — everybody here, including you — needs to commit to engage in the opportunities that will hold us accountable,” Bergman told the crowd.
Though the meeting had not yet adjourned, members of the public filed out of City Hall at 11:30 p.m. after councilors approved the project. Some left paper “Stop Biofuel” signs on chairs behind them.