Burlington moves forward with decades-old district heat plan

Published: Dec. 16, 2022 at 5:37 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Steam from Burlington Electric’s McNeil Generating Station would warm the hospital and parts of the UVM campus under a plan the city is pursuing. The decades-old district energy plan would also help the Queen City meet its climate goals.

For decades, the city of Burlington and city-owned electric department have been hoping to get the district energy proposals off the ground. Now, a scaled-back version of the plan is gaining steam.

Built in the 1980s, the McNeil Generating Station provides Burlington with around 35% of its electricity needs. But steam generated in the plant’s wood-fired boilers was also originally intended to be used as a heating source for parts of the city. Although multiple studies have gathered dust on shelves over the years, that capacity was never built out. But now the city is attempting to put all the pieces in place to make it happen to reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“Could contribute a meaningful reduction for the commercial sector -- our analysis was between 11 and 15% emissions reduction for the commercial sector in Burlington. So, that makes this the single biggest step we could take to reducing emissions in this city,” said Burlington Electric’s Darren Springer.

The idea for the $40 million project is that there would be a network of underground pipes going directly from McNeil to the UVM Medical Center. Though McNeil burns wood -- releasing carbon into the atmosphere -- the biomass facility still qualifies as renewable.

But critics say it’s not truly green energy and they question putting additional resources into the plant. “We should be phasing it out, not phasing it into further use. We are trying to say we are going to sell waste heat to UVM -- that means this plant operates long-term. And to sell waste heat, that means it’s gotta run. It’s totally backwards. We should be looking to close it down,” said former Burlington Public Works director Steve Goodkind.

But BED says that for now, McNeil is the best option. “If we want to continue to be 100% renewable in terms of our generation resources. You really can’t replace McNeil with today’s technology, with a different renewable, because they run at different times and they have different characteristics,” Springer said.

Burlington District Energy, a new nonprofit, has been set up to finance and manage the project and is in the process of obtaining an Act 250 permit. BED says taxpayers and ratepayers will not be impacted. Debt from the project would be paid off using the funds from those purchasing the steam, which they believe will be comparable to the price of natural gas and from the purchase of renewable district energy credits..