College hosts first of biomass panels

Last Thursday, the College hosted a panel titled titled “The Pros and Cons of Burning Biomass for Electricity,” the first in a series designed to inform students, faculty, staff and community members about the proposed wood-burning biomass plant in Pownal, Vt.

Earlier that day, Beaver Wood Energy filed a partial petition with the Vermont Public Service Board for a certificate of public good for its proposed biomass facility.

Jim Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs, moderated the evening’s panel discussion. “It’s well-suited for a college to take lead in this situation,” he said in his introduction. “Our goal is to educate rather than persuade.” Kolesar noted that many of the details of the project remain unknown, further demonstrating the need for community discussion.

Hank Art, professor of environmental studies and biology, was the first panelist to give a presentation.

“The topic of biomass has become more and more charged,” he said. Art then showed a slide from a PowerPoint presentation given by Beaver Wood Energy, in which the company said its goals are to make wood pellets, generate electricity and produce organic fertilizer. “It takes time to build up the biomass,” Art said, and he cautioned against plants that deplete existing biomass faster than new biomass is created, which might be the case with the Pownal plant.

Art also echoed Kolesar’s statement in calling for more information on potential impacts to forests to determine the sustainability of the project.

David Dethier, professor of geology and mineralogy, presented next. He began with a disclaimer: “My house is the fourth closest house to the proposed plant,” he said.

Dethier said it is worth “thinking hard” about all energy proposals before deciding to construct this plant. “I wish we knew more about the proposed plant,” he said. “I wish it was more innovative.”

Much of Dethier’s presentation focused on the potential sources of water supply for the proposed plant. He also encouraged monitoring the proposed site to determine potential effects.

The third panelist to speak was Richard Ney, head of the Eco-Management Services Division of the environmental consulting firm Sebesta Blomberg & Associates. Ney acknowledged that all energy choices necessitate environmental trade-offs. He also clarified the definition of biomass: Biomass is not only of wood but also grass, waste materials, ethanol, biodiesel and industrial and agricultural byproducts.
Ney also presented graphs depicting the effects of emissions of different types of fuel.

“No matter what fuel you burn, the emissions are going to be relatively similar,” he said, explaining that this is due to various controls established by the Environmental Protection Act and other environmental guidelines.

Ney also noted that when a developer requests a permit for a new major facility, there are provisions in the regulations that stipulate that there must be pre-construction monitoring at the proposed site.

Geoff Hand, partner in the Shems Dunkiel Raubvogel & Saunders PLLC law firm, closed the panel discussion.

According to Hand, the Vermont Public Service Board, made up of a chairman and two commissioners, ultimately decides where these plants are located. However, he added that there are “a lot of other players” involved in the process. These include state agencies and common interveners, or people who have demonstrated a substantial interest in the project due to a belief that the project will have an adverse impact on them.

A question-and-answer session followed in which the panelists and audience members discussed carbon neutrality, common interveners, pollution controls and the benefits of local energy sources.

Addressing carbon neutrality, Art cautioned that “biomass can be done correctly or it can be an absolute unmitigated disaster.”