Some Vermont renewable energy proponents have a fanciful notion of “Making Vermont Energy Independent”. Some legislators repeat it as part of their RE rhetoric and talking points. There is an organization “Energy Independent Vermont”, sponsored by VPIRG that espouses this independence movement, along with a tax on carbon. One such carbon tax envisions raising $520 million per year by 2026.
Vermont being energy independent is pure nonsense. Proponents likely do not know what that implies, or are engaged in a PR “feel good” that aims to bamboozle lay Vermonters, and boost their businesses with subsidies, such as a carbon tax, and increase prices for already-struggling households and businesses in the anemic, near-zero, real-growth Vermont economy.
For Vermont to be truly “energy independent”, it would have to:
- Disconnect from the NE electric grid, i.e., not use it as a crutch.
- Produce all of its primary energy, which includes the energy for generating electricity, for transportation, and for heating and cooling, from in-state energy sources; energy for generating electricity is only about 35% of all primary energy.
- Have enough thermal and electrical energy storage capacity, GWh, of various types, to cover wind and solar lulls, especially in winter, and to cover the seasonal variation of wind and solar generation, to ensure adequate electricity and other energy supply, including Vermont-sourced synthetic fuels, to the Vermont economy, 24/7/365, year after year.
- The capital cost of just the energy storage systems would be many billions of dollars.
- The operating and maintenance cost of such renewable energy systems would be several multiples of the existing Vermont energy system.
- Such an endeavor would be far beyond rational and would permanently cripple the near-zero, real-growth Vermont economy. See URL.
NOTE: In the 1600s, Vermont, 9609 square mile land area, had about 10,000 natives, about 1.0 native per square mile. They were financially independent and energy independent. In 2017, Vermont population about 620,000, about 65 people per square mile, each of whom uses a lot more energy and a lot more stuff, almost all of it imported into Vermont from all over the world. That stuff has embedded energy. Would energy independence mean no more imported embedded energy as well? We would make our own cars and computers, with homegrown materials, etc.?
NOTE: Vermont’s 250-year-old practice of cutting trees, splitting them into firewood, etc., is a form of seasonal energy shifting, as it takes energy harvested during summer for use during the winter.
What if Vermont Were Generating Its Electricity from Wood Burning: Let us assume, as part of being “energy independent”, Vermont would generate its entire electricity supply by using wood burning power plants.
The electricity supply to Vermont’s utilities is about 6 billion kWh/y. If that were generated by wood at 25% efficiency, a la McNeil and Ryegate, about 24 billion kWh x 3412 Btu/kWh x 125 lb oven-dried wood/1 million Btu x 1.45, as harvested* x 1 short ton/2000 lbs = 7.42 million “as harvested” short ton/y would be required.
* Using 45 = (wet/dry - 1) x 100; 125 lb of dry wood would calculate to 181.25 lb of wood @ 45% moisture; 181.25/125 = 1.45
In 2016, Vermont’s wood for electricity was about 720,000 “as harvested” short ton/y, from in-state and out-of-state. Vermont’s wood for electricity would have to increase 7.42/0.72 = 10.3 times.
Vermont is already harvesting near its sustainable limit, about equivalent to annual aboveground biomass growth/2, from Vermont’s harvested area, about 1,812,097 acres; Vermont’s total forest area is about 4,414,884 acres, most of which is unavailable. Either, Vermont would be deforested in about a decade, or it would need to import much more out-of-state wood, i.e., send money out of state.
Wood Source Energy Factor: Losses = Upstream (harvest, chipping, transport, about 2.5%) + Conversion to electricity, including site self-use (about 75%) + Transmission and distribution (about 7%) = 84.5%, i.e., 15.5% arrives at the user meters. The source energy factor for wood power plants is 100/15.5 = 6.45, i.e., the energy equivalent of 5.45 of 6.45 trees is wasted.
NOTE: McNeil and Ryegate wood-fired power plants have similarly high pathway source factors because of their poor efficiency. Closing them would significantly reduce Vermont’s source energy, and toxic pollution, and CO2 emissions. Per government edict, burning trees is declared CO2-neutral, which is only partially true, plus you have to wait for about 50 to 100 years for almost all of the CO2 to be fully reabsorbed by forest growth.
NOTE: Burlington Electric Department claims its electricity supply is 100% renewable. However, McNeil is renewable:
- Only on a 50 - 100-year basis, for the combustion part of the pathway as noted above (just Google); the non-combustion part of the pathway (about 10%) will never be recovered.
- Only if the forest, from which the trees were taken, would still be there to do the absorbing
- Only if the forest CO2 absorption/acre is unimpaired by development, roads, logging, clear-cutting, disease, etc.
Combined Heat Power: Wood-fired, combined heat power, CHP, plants would have annual average efficiencies of about 70%. To achieve maximum efficiency, they would need to operated near rated output, produce electricity, plus any recovered heat would need to be fully utilized for building heating and cooling. The heat recovery boilers of such plants usually have supplementary firing to cover winter demand. With that approach, Vermont’s wood harvest would have to increase 25/70 x 10.3 = 3.68 times, which is still not feasible.
The Folly of Adding District Heating to McNeil: There are plans to add a thermal distribution loop to the McNeil wood-fired power plant in Burlington to heat nearby buildings. The turnkey capital cost (excluding financing costs) would be $7 million for McNeil plant modifications + $10 million for thermal distribution loops + $12.5 million for building modifications, for a total of $29.5 million.
All of the funds likely would have to be federal and state government grants, as with the $20 million turnkey cost for the money-losing Montpelier District Heating Plant, because no private investor could ever make a profit from such projects.
Vermont Natives and Europeans: In 1600, there were about 8,000 natives in Vermont, about 1 person square mile of land. They had selected the best areas, near lakes and streams for their style of living, i.e., hunting, fishing, gathering and some agriculture. They lived in small, cleared areas connected by paths through the forests for thousands of years. They travelled with dugout and birch-bark canoes.
In the early 1600s, because of epidemics, likely due to contacts with Europeans, most of the natives died, and many of these areas were abandoned, and taken over by Europeans, and are now covered by towns roads and other man-made detritus. Over time, the Europeans deforested Vermont, which destroyed much of the fauna and flora of the forests, streams and lakes. Vermont’s remaining natural habitat, that would be suitable for the native style of living, likely could not support even 2,000 natives.
For example, there would hardly be any fishes in Vermont, if there were no state fish hatcheries. How would a native grow crops without fish as fertilizer?
NOTE: Some 100% RE folks, such as Energy Independent Vermont, c/o VPIRG, Montpelier, VT, think 625,000 Vermonters should be energy independent. That would mean getting ALL of our primary energy for electrical and other uses from Vermont sources, and to be truly “pure”, it would mean disconnecting from the NE grid. Vermonters would still be importing almost all of their food and other goods and services, which required energy from mine to final user. Such 100% RE folks appear to live in LaLaLand.
Clearcutting in the 1800s: By 1880, almost all of the natives had died off, and 80% of Vermont's forests were gone. The underground biomass that had gathered and retained minerals and nutrients to sustain the forests over thousands of years had died, and those minerals and nutrients were dispersed and leached out of the soil over the decades.
New trees grew back on that depleted soil, but many of them were spindly, sickly and short-lived. They were only a pale copy of the big trees that were possible before.
Acid Rain From 1950 Onwards: Since about 1950, acid rain came from the Midwest, which doused the trees with an acid bath due to snowmelt every spring, and with multiple acid baths due to rainfall year-round. At present, about 50% of aboveground tree biomass is spindly, sickly and short-lived, per surveys of the US forest service.
People in the logging business want to cut and remove those “junk” trees for firewood, chipping and making pellets. However, that "junk" wood should be chipped and spread on the forest floor to provide minerals and nutrition to the soil, so healthy trees could eventually grow again. It is called conservation and restitution. See URLs at bottom of article for much additional information.
NOTE: The damage to the soil from clearcutting in the 1800s and from acid rain from 1950 onwards, have damaged NE soils to the extent about 50% of trees are only suitable for burning. That does not mean they should be burned. Logging forests, i.e., taking nutrients from the forests ultimately depletes the soil. Clearcutting forests RAPIDLY depletes the soil, because it kills the belowground biomass, which allows its minerals and nutrients to disperse, wash away, etc., as happened during the 1800s. Regrowth will ALWAYS be less on a lesser quality soils. The reason farmers fertilize their soils. No fertilizer leads to meager crops. Farmers have a word for poorly managed soils: PLAYED OUT.
NOTE: Often logging proponents claim loggers take the trunks and don't take any of the leaves or very many of the branches. Well, one of my neighbors, with 760 acres, gathers hundreds of trees from the woods and piles them up. A contractor, with a huge chipper, and a feeder crane, and a 50 ft. truck and trailer, arrive on the site. I have watched them chip hundreds of WHOLE trees (trunk, branches, leaves), up to 2 FEET in diameter. A whole tree is gone in about one or two minutes. The noise of that equipment is well over 100 dB.