BED and union balk at REV proposal to remove McNeil plant as renewable energy source

BED photo of the McNeil power station.

Vermont Business Magazine The following leaders at Burlington Electric Department (BED) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 300 made a statement in response to a legislative proposal supported by Renewable Energy Vermont (REV) and announced today at a press conference organized by REV in Montpelier:

  • Darren Springer, BED General Manager and recipient of Renewable Energy Vermont 2021 Renewable Energy Industry Award
  • Jeffrey Wimette, Business Manager of IBEW Local 300
  • Jim “Duke” Dutra, IBEW Chief Steward at BED
  • Betsy Lesnikoski, BED Chief Forester at McNeil Generating Station
  • Munir Kasti, BED Chief Operating Officer, Manager of Utility Services and Engineering, and Acting Director of Generation
  • Jennifer Green, BED Director of Sustainability and Workforce Development and Co-Chair of Renewable Energy Vermont 2022 and 2023 conferences

The statement of the above-listed energy industry leaders follows:

“Burlington Electric Department (BED) is a strong supporter of renewable energy projects in our City and in the State of Vermont, and Burlington has been recognized as one of the top cities in the nation for solar per capita by Environment America in its Shining Cities 2022 report. While we welcome the opportunity to add more cost-effective renewable energy in Vermont, the proposed legislation announced today and backed by the business trade association Renewable Energy Vermont fails to recognize the many investments in renewable energy sources made by BED, the municipal public power utility for the City of Burlington. In 2014, Burlington became the first city in the nation to source 100 percent of its power from renewable generation, an accomplishment it continues to this day. The REV proposal would require costly changes to BED’s renewable resource portfolio, penalizing BED’s ratepayers by adding potentially tens of millions of dollars in new power supply costs, with no fossil fuel reduction benefit for BED customers because BED already is 100 percent renewable.

"In addition, the REV proposal attempts to phase out the eligibility of the McNeil Generating Station wood chip plant to count toward Vermont’s renewable energy targets. On behalf of BED and the members of the IBEW unionized workforce at McNeil, we oppose the REV proposal in the strongest possible terms. The 35 hard-working employees of McNeil ensure the plant is staffed 24/7, through rain, snow, and storms, to help keep the lights on. Vermont is a net importer of electricity, and McNeil is the largest energy producer in the state, providing important reliability benefits. McNeil reduces the burden on the transmission system and is a key component of power restoration plans put in place by Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) in the event of a regional blackout. McNeil also helps insulate Burlington ratepayers from volatile regional energy markets. BED estimates that, absent McNeil’s production during the current fiscal year, it would have needed to file for an additional 20 percent rate increase last August, on top of the requested 3.95 percent.

"Given New England’s overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels for electricity and McNeil’s function as a dispatchable plant that can produce power on demand—unlike variable renewable resources—any proposal to phase out reliance on local wood energy means incurring a greater reliance on imported fossil fuels. Analysis from Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) shows that McNeil significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 85 percent relative to fossil fuel plant alternatives, and analysis from Innovative Natural Resource Solutions indicates that areas from where McNeil harvests wood in Vermont and New York have added over 20 million tons of additional carbon storage in live trees since 2003. USDA Forest Service data indicates that Vermont’s forests added net growth from 2014 to 2019, and that wood chips for McNeil use only a small fraction of the annual growth.

"McNeil has a decades-long track record of supporting sustainable forestry, with four licensed foresters on staff. The plant offers one of the few Vermont markets for wood residue from forestry operations, providing value to landowners to help keep working lands as working lands, instead of facing pressure for development. McNeil supports an estimated $50 million in annual economic activity in Vermont, including approximately 80 total jobs at the plant and in the wood supply chain. McNeil procures wood chips from within a 60- to 70-mile radius of the plant, including from Addison, Chittenden, Franklin, Lamoille, Orleans, Rutland, Washington, and Windsor counties in Vermont.

"Importantly, McNeil also operates with strong air emissions controls. A memorandum from the Climate and Health Program Manager at the Vermont Department of Health provided to the Vermont Climate Council this past summer stated, in regard to McNeil and the Ryegate plant, that ‘health impacts caused by air pollution from the two biomass power plants are essentially negligible’ and attributed that to being ‘mainly a result of the two generating facilities operating with relatively efficient combustion technology and with extensive filtration, pollution controls, and regulations that in combination greatly limit emissions.’ We continue to seek opportunities to enhance McNeil’s efficiency and value, including a proposed district energy system that would capture waste heat and additional steam to reduce commercial sector fossil fuel use in Burlington. The district energy project is, for the first time, advancing to the Act 250 permitting process, and is one of four major components of Burlington’s Net Zero Energy Roadmap.

"We are disappointed that, in an effort to promote more solar development, REV has chosen to advocate for phasing out local wood energy in Vermont. This is a false choice. We need all renewables, including solar, wind, hydropower, and wood energy to reduce the region’s reliance on volatilely priced fossil fuels. Given the serious concerns about the cost impacts of REV’s proposals—and the negative potential impact on jobs in local renewable wood energy and the local forestry economy—it is critical that forestry professionals, electric ratepayer advocates, grid reliability and power supply experts, and the workforce that could be negatively impacted are included in future policy discussions. We hope that, instead of moving in the direction for which REV is advocating, we can work collaboratively on ideas that are more cost-effective, build thoughtfully on the existing and successful renewable energy policies Vermont already has, support jobs in all renewable energy resources, and recognize and support investments made in renewable plants by early adopters of renewable energy like BED.”

*Updated analysis from Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, using data available from USDA Forest Service

References and resources referred to in the above statement follow:

*Environment America 2022 Shining Cities report

*VEIC analysis of McNeil

*Innovative Natural Resource Solutions analysis of McNeil (starting on page 79 of PDF)

*USDA Forest Service data on Vermont

*BED McNeil Myths and Facts

*Memorandum dated July 12, 2022 from Climate and Health Program Manager at Vermont Department of Health provided to Vermont Climate Council Biomass Task Group

2.1.2023. Burlington, VT – Burlington Electric Department