Springer: Two New Data Points Underscore Critical Importance of McNeil Wood Fuel Mill
by Darren Springer, General Manager, Burlington Electrical Department Last year, we wrote a commentary on the benefits of the McNeil Generating Station, including its contribution to Vermont’s economy, its support for sustainable forestry, and its importance as a renewable energy generator from a climate and reliability.
As policymakers continue to consider how to support renewable energy in Vermont, we write today to share two important new data points – one economic and one environmental – relating to McNeil that should inform discussions.
The first new data point is the historically high price of energy (especially during the winter months) that we are seeing in the ISO-New England power market.
The 2021-2022 winter was the second most expensive in the region’s history, despite the fact that last winter was slightly warmer than normal. Oil-fired generation accounted for 11% of electricity generated in New England during an expensive January 2022, compared to just 0.2% in January 2021.
Looking ahead, as the chart below shows on the dashed blue line, 24-hour futures (ATC) prices for the coming winter are considerably higher than last year – in fact at all-time highs – with high inflation and global pressures adding to volatility in energy markets.
During the harsh winter of 2021-22, McNeil Generating Station was able to store enough firewood to operate nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from early December to late March, which contributed to the regional reliability and reduces the region’s dependence on fossil fuels.
This local renewable energy resource has also provided an important economic shield against regional market price volatility for many Vermont electric customers, as McNeil is jointly owned by the Burlington Electric Department (BED), Green Mountain Power and the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority.
The second new data point comes from a third-party analysis of life cycle emissions on McNeil by local energy experts at VEIC. Nationwide life cycle analysis, for example from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, continues to show that producing energy from wood has a much lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels.
Although McNeil is a wood processing plant, when considering life cycle analysis, there are fossil fuel inputs upstream in the wood supply chain, including transportation of wood to at the factory. VEIC’s analysis considered all upstream emissions from the use of fossil fuels in plant procurement and operations.
He then estimated the net impact of McNeil’s emissions by comparing the plant’s carbon footprint to the mix of ISO-New England systems during similar periods of operation (reflecting the sources that would have worked had McNeil not had electricity product). analysis doesn’t consider upstream emissions associated with fossil fuel generation resources in the ISO-NE system mix, including drilling, mining, transportation and pipeline leaks.
Even with these constraints which may underestimate the emissions of the ISO-NE system mix, VEIC’s analysis revealed “[c]Continuing to source electricity from the McNeil station reduces GHG emissions by 85% compared to the more likely option of purchasing electricity from the ISO-NE grid.
The table below is taken from the VEIC report.
The VEIC analysis demonstrates that McNeil contributes significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the New England region compared to alternative power generation resources that operate for similar periods, including l ‘winter. This speaks to the benefits of various renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, hydroelectric and McNeil’s sustainable wood energy production. Of these sources, McNeil is the only one who can plan and control his production in response to demand.
Assessing the emissions benefits of wood energy includes understanding the environmental benefits of sustainable forest management and the fact that McNeil contributes economically to maintaining forest land as working land, instead of facing development pressure that would eliminate their carbon sequestration. Forestry professionals talk about these benefits.
Addison Kasmarek and Scott Moreau (both of whom are licensed professional foresters from Vermont and New Hampshire) of Westford, Vermont-based Greenleaf Forestry, say McNeil’s woodchip market “makes our green forest management work possible. responsible and sustainable” and “helps keep our forest products local and helps keep our rural economy alive.
Joseph Nelson, Vermont Certified Professional Forester, of Ferrisburgh, Vermont, notes that McNeil’s woodchip market “will play an increasing role in the sustainability of forest management in the years to come as we tackle the increasing exotic pests, invasive plants, increased fire danger and climate change.
Vermont Certified Professional Forester Andy McGovern of East Thetford says McNeil’s purchases of woodchips “enable landowners to practice economically sustainable forestry” and “enable them to keep their forests intact, by minimizing fragmentation, development and unsustainable management of forests, which benefits everyone.”
McNeil plays a vital role in supporting Vermont’s economy and sustainable forestry. It plays an important role in reducing regional reliance on fossil fuel generation, protecting Vermont electricity consumers from energy price spikes, and contributing to regional reliability. Going forward, work continues at McNeil to advance district energy and add a new solar research center on-site in partnership with UVM. We hope the data presented here will be helpful as Vermont seeks to develop data-driven policy regarding renewable energy and climate change mitigation.