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District Heating & Biomass: A Good Match for Greenfield?

By Richie Davis, Recorder Staff
Originally published in the Greenfield Recorder on 1/19/10

Two Greenfield energy groups are trying to promote the marriage of wood-burning electricity generation with central heating systems that warm whole neighborhoods or villages.

Greening Greenfield Energy Committee and Co-Op Power contend the two compatible technologies can be married to cut energy costs around town, better use wood resources around the region and also boost the area’s economy.

“Of all the energy problems in the world, this is one a local community can fix right now,” said district heating expert Morris Pierce of Rochester, N.Y. Pierce, a self-described “district energy missionary,” oversaw a combined heating and electricity system for 58 University of Rochester buildings using three miles of pipe. The system is also used to cool the buildings in summer.

The university’s 25megawatt plant heats two campuses with hot water from a boiler that now burns natural gas but will eventually burn wood chip “biomass.”

Pierce and biomass specialist Ben Urquhart from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, were invited to a joint forum Saturday in Greenfield.

Wendy Marsden, a member of Co-Op Power and Greening Greenfield and who invited the speakers, said “We’ve got this great big ability to produce wood chips,” pointing to a state finding that there are 1.7 million tons of biomass that could be sustainably harvested from the five western counties each year – enough sawdust from sawmills and furniture manufacturers as well as forest debris and other waste to generate 150 megawatts of power and heat every hospital in Massachusetts.

A lot of the forest waste is now getting shipped to paper mills in Canada, especially because of the weakness of the American dollar, said Marsden, who envisions a 10-megawatt electrical generation plant off French King Highway that could also send hot water to buildings around town using four miles of hot water pipes.

A 10-megawatt power generator/ neighborhood heating plant would be about a fifth the size of a biomass power generator proposed for the Interstate Industrial Park by Cambridgebased Pioneer Renewable Energy. Some critics of that 47megawatt plant complain it and other similar plants proposed around western Massachusetts would overtax the region’s forests, cause pollution and contribute to global warming.

Nevertheless, district heating and burning “waste” wood dovetails with plans by Co-Op Power, a regional energy cooperative with more than 300 members, to develop a biomass plant in the next five years. Those plans, approved at the co-op’s annual meeting, could “conceivably” be done in conjunction with a district heating project, said spokesman Larry Union, but not necessarily.

Co-Op Power has also been working with foresters around western Massachusetts who want to site a wood-fired generator in the area.

District heating, which has also been proposed by two groups for Brattleboro, Vt., has long been used in northern Europe, including a 24-year-old system over about 600 square miles that uses more than 50 “combined heat and power” plants, incinerators and boilers to supply 97 percent of Copenhagen’s heat recaptured from electricity production.

Pierce plans to meet Friday with the Deerfield Energy Committee to describe a proposal he developed last fall incorporating a 2-megawatt wood chip-fired generating plant, which would also provide 190-degree water to heat Deerfield Academy, much of Old Deerfield and potentially Bement School, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and Eaglebrook School.

“What I’m looking for is some community that wants to go do this. I’ve actually got the equipment lined up, I’ve got people lined up who are willing to finance it, I’ve got the engineers. What I need is kind of a demonstration site, which can be a small community.”

His focus is on the Northeast, which depends largely on oil heat, because the cost is rising so rapidly.

Urquhart said that although there are now half a dozen biomass plants around the state – including at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, a couple dozen such projects are on the drawing boards.

“The amount of movement we’re seeing on biomass is amazing,” said Urquhart. “It’s a sizeable renewable resource in western Mass., and when it’s used with a district heating system, it can be very efficient. Properly removing wood from area forests can help promote growth of the remaining trees while improving forest health and protecting water supplies, proponents say.

“We’re looking to support the market for traditional lowvalue forest material. It allows people to retain their (woodlot) ownership and very much supports the local economy, Urquhart said. “If a community was thinking about a district heating system, they could consider oil or natural gas, and just by sharing the heat and electricity, the overall system would be more efficient. If they also wanted to consider biomass, they’d be using a local resource and contributing to the forest economy.”

Proponents say that once the expense of digging trenches for pipes is out of the way, the efficiencies of a central heating system are clear. The biggest hurdle, said Pierce, may be fighting the inertia of people who don’t see the need to change how they’re using energy.

“The theory is to come up with something that doesn’t need outside support to make it happen,” Pierce said. “Otherwise we’ll be waiting for the government forever. We’ve got to get local people to say we want to do this, and take control over our energy future.”

On the Web: www.energy.rochester.edu/ndec

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