Concerns mount over biomass plant

Tomorrow night, the College will host a panel discussion titled “The Pros and Cons of Burning Biomass for Electricity.” The purpose of this talk, the first in a series, is to address the construction of a proposed biomass plant at the former racetrack on Route 7 in Pownal, Vt.

“The College is interested in helping people understand and helping ourselves understand the issues of biomass,” said Jim Kolesar, assistant to the president for Public Affairs.

The proposed biomass facility, developed by Beaver Wood Energy, would burn untreated waste wood to produce electricity. Residual heat will be channeled to producing wood pellets in a neighboring building for home and commercial use.

The biomass plant proposal has spurred much concern and activism among local residents, both in support of and against the plant. A running theme throughout the discussion has been a call for more specific information about the potential
environmental impact.

“It certainly raised concerns for local people in the area,” Kolesar said. He added that whenever there is a plan for a new local facility, residents in the area become interested. “[The project] requires a good, thorough analysis of potential effects,” Kolesar said.

President Falk, in an Oct. 20 letter to the Pownal Board of Selectmen, asked the board members to “base such complex and important decisions on appropriately full information.” The Williamstown Board of Selectmen also wrote a letter to the Pownal board members asking that they address numerous concerns, including the perceived lack of information available about the proposed plant.

“Most concerns cannot be easily investigated until the company releases a more definite plan,” said David Dethier, professor of geosciences. Williamstown town manager Peter Fohlin said he has received numerous e-mails from concerned residents asking for more information on the proposed biomass plant.

Most of these concerns deal with the possible environmental implications of having a biomass plant in the nearby area.

“Any industrial plant will have environmental implications,” said Stephanie Boyd, director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. “You need to think about the system and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.”

According to Kolesar, one possible negative effect of the plant would be the resulting pollution caused by the burning of the biomass. These pollutants are dangerous to human health, especially for children, the elderly and those with health conditions. However, Kolesar acquiesced that such emissions would be regulated by federal and other guidelines.

Williamstown borders Pownal and would be particularly affected by any air quality and traffic issues, according to the Williamstown Board of Selectman. Additionally, Kolesar said there are seven faculty and 39 staff members who live inneighborhing Pownal.

The Pownal plant would not be the only biomass facility in the area. Middlebury College recently built a similar biomass gasification plant to heat and cool campus buildings and to reduce its carbon emissions, among other reasons. In addition, the McNeil Station in Burlington, Vt., was authorized in 1978 and uses wood, gas and oil for fuel.

The biomass plant in Pownal would also carry an increase in truck traffic both during the construction period and once the plant is operational to transport wood to the facility. As noted in a letter to the Pownal Board of Selectmen, written by Lara Shore-Sheppard, professor of economics, and W. Anthony Sheppard, professor of music, about 96 trucks would drive on the road each day and would travel on a portion of Route 7, including the roundabout in front of the Williams Inn.

The plant would use water from the Hoosic River and an on-site well as a coolant in its manufacturing process. “There’s some concern about the water that is going to be used and the resulting water availability,” Kolesar said.

Kolesar added that there might also be an effect on local woodland areas, as wood can be harvested in different ways, some of which are more sustainable than others. Although Beaver Wood Energy has pledged to use sustainably harvested waste wood from forests within a 50-mile radius, some question the long-run viability of this pledge.

The financial cost of this 29 megawatt biomass facility is an estimated $150 million investment in the community of Pownal, according to Beaver Wood Energy. There are, however, significant advantages that would accompany the building of the plant. The first would be a reduction of dependence on foreign oil and coal.
Sarah Gardner, associate director of the Center for Environment Studies (CES), wrote in a letter to the editor of the North Adams Transcript that said, “It may be more environmentally responsible to produce electricity locally than to rely on distant fossil fuel electric plants.”

Another possible benefit of using biomass fuels would be the reduction in net carbon emissions. However, according to Boyd, not all plants are carbon neutral. “It really depends how this cycle is managed as to whether there will be a net benefit,” she said.
According to Beaver Wood Energy, the project would create about 50 jobs at the facility – 25 in electricity production and 25 in wood pellet production – as well as approximately 100 jobs in local forestry, logging and construction. Another attractive possibility is the plant’s potential contribution to Pownal’s property tax base. In addition, the biomass plant could fill the gap that is expected to open in Vermont’s electricity supply after the impending shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt.

There are many community members and College faculty, staff and students, however, who remain uncertain that the benefits outweigh the costs.

“While I was formerly a firm supporter of the plant, I am now ambivalent on the issue, and my opinion depends on the release of more definitive information,” said Jack Saul ’13. “I do see potential problems with the plant, but none that don’t have solutions besides not building it.”

CES, the Zilkha Center and the Office of Public Affairs will host tomorrow’s panel at 8 p.m. in Griffin 3. Panelists include Dethier; Hank Art, professor of environmental studies and biology; Geoff Hand, partner in the Shems Dunkiel Raubvogel & Saunders PLLC law firm and Richard Ney, head of the Eco-Management Services Division of the environmental consulting firm Sebesta Blomberg & Associates. Kolesar will moderate the discussion. Willinet Community TV will broadcast the panel on Nov. 3 at 9 p.m.