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Gaining a hold on more green

Partnering with a local renewable energy company could save one Vermont grower big bucks in heating costs

By Matt McClellan – Produce Grower – June 10, 2013

To compete with greenhouses in warmer climates, northern growers have to get creative. Jeff Jones, managing partner of Vermont Hydroponic Produce LLC (, currently operates greenhouses in Florence, Vt., and Quebec, where he grows Big Dana, Clarence and Castella tomato varieties hydroponically. He’s signed onto a renewable energy project that would integrate two new five-acre greenhouses with a 29.5-megawatt biomass-fired power plant and wood pellet manufacturer.

The Fair Haven Biomass Energy Center project, which is estimated to cost $200 million, still needs two permits to proceed. Construction is estimated to take two years once the project gets the green light.

Low-grade steam, waste heat and waste water will be piped directly to the greenhouses from the biomass power plant and the pellet facility, which would enable Vermont Hydroponic to grow tomatoes and other vegetables year-round. The cost of growing all year in Vermont is much higher than in Florida, Arizona or Mexico, and Jones is looking for something to erase that competitive disadvantage.

Tom Emero, managing director of development and operations for Beaver Wood Energy, the company behind the proposed energy center, says it will be one of the most technologically advanced and environmentally friendly biomass plants in the U.S. He says the project will add 300 new jobs — 25 jobs at the biomass power plant, 25 jobs at the pellet manufacturing facility, 100 jobs at the greenhouses and Grower’s Hub and another 150 jobs in the forest industry.

The biomass plant will produce electricity fueled by locally harvested wood. The wood fuel supply will be tree tops, branches, bark and excess wood that is often unused when wood is harvested for paper, lumber, or pellets. Most of the wood will come from within 50 miles of the plant. According to Beaver Wood Energy’s website, experienced foresters will work to protect forest health.

From the ground up
This isn’t the first time Jones has attempted to harness his energy costs. He’s looked at alternative ways to heat greenhouses, including being part of a project called Carbon Harvest Energy that involved taking methane from a landfill and burning it to create electricity. That one hasn’t developed fully yet, but it did put Vermont Hydroponic Produce on Emero’s radar.

“We had been looking actively to find a cost-effective heat solution, and they contacted us based on something they read based on our connection with Carbon Harvest Energy Project,” Jones says. “Knowing where we were in our quest for heat, we said, ‘Absolutely, we’d love to partner with you.’”

Jones is well-acquainted with biomass as a source of energy, as his Quebec greenhouse is heated by its own biomass generator. Partnering with a power plant to take advantage of its waste heat had occurred to him before, but he could never find a way to make the process cost-efficient. He needed to be part of the process from the ground up, when blueprints were still being drafted.

“The problem with a project like this is there are a lot of power plants out there that give off waste heat, but getting it into a greenhouse is a huge mess. We’ve looked into re-engineering other heat-producing plants, but piping the heat that is needed into the greenhouse after the power plant has been built is not feasible.”

From its inception, the Fair Haven project was looking for an agriculture component in the form of a greenhouse.

Jones says the way the heat site is formatted is actually perfect for a two-stage, five-acre greenhouse to get the maximum benefit of the waste heat from the power plant.

“For us, it’s all about the heat,” Jones says. “We need heat to compete. Having our greenhouses built into the design of this power plant is really the only way we could do it.”

The expansion plan
Jones is also thinking creatively to solve another common grower problem: how to get local produce from small growers into major supermarkets. To that end, the final part of the energy center project is the creation of a centralized produce distribution hub for regional growers that participate in Growers’ Hub (, a web-based ordering site that facilitates large chain stores to order produce from small regional growers.

“Heat is a huge cost, but logistics and transportation are another huge cost for any regional grower,” Jones says. “I feel that we’ve got the heat thing licked by positioning our greenhouses next to an energy plant, but putting that Growers’ Hub system live and inviting other growers to drop their product off at that site and take the benefit of getting their product into more stores is a win-win for everyone.”

Jones developed Growers’ Hub because buyers for Price Chopper, a Schenectady, N.Y.-based regional supermarket chain, wanted more locally grown tomatoes in their stores, but it was too expensive for Vermont Hydroponic to expand to meet the demand.

“We were driving our tomatoes to their stores in vans and trucks and for us to expand, we’d have to buy more trucks and hire more drivers — plus with fuel costs through the roof, it was a loss for us,” Jones says.

The distribution hub at the proposed energy center would be a centralized location for the growers in Vermont and northern New York to drop off their produce for the supermarket chains to pick up and get it out to all their stores. Jones says this would eliminate hundreds of growers driving to different stores with different pricing and help those growers become bigger, creating more jobs. He sees this becoming a model for small growers to provide supermarkets with fresh, regional food without going broke.

“It’s a food sovereignty thing that makes sense,” Jones says. “Their trucks are on the road already. They are going back to the stores empty. You’re better off getting your produce on those trucks than any other way. If we can fill those empty trucks with regional food to get back to the stores, it’s a win-win for the environment, grower, retailer and the customer.”

Why U.S. Wood Can — and Should — Power Europe

A forest owner (and Rolling Stones keyboardist) on the benefits of ‘biomass’ sales.

By Chuck Leavell – Wall Street Journal – June 10, 2013

In the past two weeks, news reports have covered European Union rules mandating that 20% of energy in EU countries by 2020 must come from “renewable” sources. To meet the requirement, European utilities are increasingly turning toward burning wood instead of coal—with much of the wood coming from the United States in the form of pellets.

Some environmentalists complain that cutting down trees is hardly a “green” solution, while utility-company officials have defended the practice of using woody biomass as a renewable energy source. Yet one point of view hasn’t been much in evidence in the debate. That is the view of independent forest owners like me—my family manages 2,500 acres of forest in Georgia—who can speak directly to practices of the forestry industry and the benefits the industry provides local communities.

First, some perspective on the U.S. wealth of natural resources: The American South has more than 214 million acres of forest land, according to the Southern Group of State Foresters. About 89% is privately owned, making it the nation’s stronghold for private forest ownership and stewardship.

Although the U.S. has a large amount of forested land, that does not mean the country can afford to cut down trees in a careless, slash-and-burn fashion as in decades past—and that is certainly not what is happening today.

Europe’s increasing use of woody biomass, such as wood pellets, has not resulted in the inappropriate over-harvesting of U.S. forests that some fear. The demand has created a viable use for woody material from forestry operations that typically goes to waste. Twigs and limbs—plus woody material from thinning operations in which unsalable trees are removed to allow other trees to grow stronger and healthier—that would otherwise rot are used for biomass. Using this resource for energy puts it to good use and is a wise thing to do.

There is a common-sense approach to sustainably managing the nation’s forests. Americans have learned that they need to be good stewards of the land, and forest owners throughout the Southeast can be very proud of their forest management. Sustainable methods and best practices have been established, which include replanting trees and ensuring that tree harvesting is done in a way that protects wildlife as well as air and water quality.

The forestry industry and thus the forest owners are governed by federal and state laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Healthy Forests Initiative. There also are independent certifications that govern all forestry industries. The type of certification a landowner chooses is up to the owner, but the standards are in place. Individual forest owners also work hand-in-hand with state forestry officials and with experienced licensed foresters for proper forestry management.

Just as musicians are passionate about their craft, independent forest owners are passionate about the art of land management. Our mantra is to leave the land in better shape than when we found it. Not only do we care about this from aesthetic and recreational perspectives, but for many it is good business to care.

Forest owners who sell timber have an incentive to ensure that their forests remain healthy, productive and sustainable. Anything else would hurt the bottom line and threaten their investment. Sound practices also create and protect jobs. In Georgia alone, there are 24 million acres of forested land. According to state-government estimates, this translates to roughly 188,000 jobs and $25 billion of economic impact related to forestry. In the states that produce woody biomass, what was once a declining job market has new hope as forestry puts people back to work in jobs connected to a resource that is natural, organic and renewable.

I am also concerned about what I call “The Invisible Forest Health Crisis”—the loss of natural lands to growth and development. Landowners sometimes have tough choices to make: sell the land so it can become some community’s strip mall, or keep the land as a sustainably managed working forest. More demand for forest products increases the likelihood of those forests remaining intact.

As a land and forest owner I recognize that I can’t stop growth. But as a lifelong nature lover and environmentalist, I can guide it. Preserving our forests and fostering the use of wood products, including woody biomass—while also helping Europe meet its admirable goals for renewable-energy sources—is not a bad proposition.

Mr. Leavell is the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and co-founder of the environmental website, the Mother Nature Network ( His most recent book is “Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable” (Evergreen Arts, 2011)

Words from the Wise

by Anna Austin – – January 25, 2012

A study by a group of forest scientists confirms forest-derived bioenergy results in no net carbon release

Does the utilization of wood for energy release as much pollution as energy from coal? Does it release more? Is it depleting our nation’s forests and destroying natural habitats?

These questions are hotly debated by scientists, foresters, bioenergy industry members and even the general public. While it’s likely the real answers lie somewhere buried beneath a discombobulating mountain of studies, reports and whitepapers—many of which have been conducted with a very specific purpose or outcome in mind—it’s left policymakers and landowners unsure about what’s fact and what’s fiction.

A recently released study authored by nine scientists from multiple organizations and universities, including the U.S. Forest Service, may be poised to clear up some confusion. With no motive other than to scrutinize, hash out and compare the best and most recent science surrounding forests, climate change and bioenergy from a forest management perspective, the group is confident in its findings and hopes they will be accepted as the unvarnished truth.

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The referenced study can be downloaded here.

Town Hall With The Governor

Last week, Vermont Public Television hosted a Television Town Hall with Governor Shumlin. The governor was asked a question about the Fair Haven Energy Center. You can see how he answered it below.

Fair Haven biomass project receives air pollution control permit. – February 15, 2012

FAIR HAVEN – A biomass project proposed for Fair Haven has received a necessary air quality control permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The plant is being proposed by Beaver Wood Energy LLC, and is planned to produce 29.5 megawatts of biomass power as well as manufacture wood pellets for heating fuel. Beaver Wood last year proposed building a second plant in Pownal at the site of the former Green Mountain Race Track, but because of state mandates that only required Vermont utilities to buy certain levels of biomass power, as well as stiff local opposition, the company announced it would suspend development on the Pownal project and withdrew is Section 248 application.

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The Power to Persevere: How One City Is Rebuilding Itself Through Biomass – November 16, 2011

BERLIN, N.H. — Drive deep enough into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and you’ll be on your way. Continue far enough past the ski resorts that make the region famous, and you’ll head straight for some of the most rugged peaks in North America. Stay close enough to the unforgiving Androscoggin River, and you’ll soon see the sign.

“Welcome to Berlin, New Hampshire: The City That Trees Built.”

It’s then that you’ll realize that this struggling city doesn’t take failure easily. And giving up? It’s just not the way they do business.

So when the city set out on a course to rebuild itself, it once again turned to the dense forests that long ago defined this community. For the 10,000 residents of Berlin, the cornerstone of the revitalization is a 75-megawatt biomass power plant that will by 2013 sprout from the ashes of the city’s historic paper mill.

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Study confirms biogenic emissions result in no net carbon release – November 10, 2011

A new study with multiple co-authors, including researchers from the U.S. Forest Service, found that energy produced from forest biomass merely returns recently absorbed carbon to the atmosphere, and essentially results in no net release of carbon, provided overall forest inventories are stable or increasing.

The report, “Managing Forests Because Carbon Matters: Integrating Energy, Products, and Land Management Policy,” summarizes the most recent science regarding forests and carbon accounting, biomass use and forest carbon offsets. The authors, researchers from the U.S. Forest Service as well as several universities, natural resource and environmental organizations, hope their findings will lead to better policies, based on their findings.

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The entire study can be downloaded here.

How Manomet Got it Backwards

by William Strauss – August 26, 2011

The biomass curves assumes a 30-year growing cycle with dedicated sustainable forests so that no new net CO2 is released by combustion after the 30th year from biomass facilities started in 2011. The coal curve is business as usual. The model assumes a 2.5% annual increase in demand.

In 2010, the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences conducted a study for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to examine the greenhouse gas implications of using woody biomass for energy. Manomet’s report stated that burning wood initially emits more greenhouse gasses than burning fossil fuels, and that it can take 30 years or more for this “carbon debt” to be repaid. The news media misinterpreted the findings, screaming “Wood Worse than Coal” in headlines that played around the world. In response to the controversy, Manomet issued a statement of clarification, but stood by their science and the idea of a carbon debt. Massachusetts, for its part, took the study to heart and has drafted revised regulations that will dramatically reduce the likelihood of new biomass energy facilities being built under the state’s renewable energy portfolio standards.

The problem, as I see it, is that the debt-then-dividend axiom on which Manomet bases their whole study is fundamentally flawed. Those who study complex systems theory are familiar with the concept that selection is information; in this case, the Manomet authors have selectively limited the scope of their worldview in a way that only allows for one conclusion.

The foundation of the Manomet argument is that there is a debt when CO2 is released when we burn wood from a tree, and over a growth cycle, the debt is repaid as new trees grow and gather carbon from the atmosphere. Taken to the logical extreme, they’re taking a theoretical fully grown tree, harvesting it, burning it, measuring the carbon, then watching an empty space for 30 years until new trees grow in its place. Figure 1 shows this in a chart form.

But what if we look at the forest on a landscape level, rather than on a tree-by-tree basis? Say there’s a forest system with 1,000,000 tons of biomass on January 1 of a given year. Because forests are always growing, that system might have 1,010,000 tons of biomass at the end of that year. In this case, the forest has increased its carbon stock over the year by 10,000 tons. If 10,000 tons of biomass are harvested from the system on December 31, then the system begins the next year with the same stock of biomass and carbon it had at the beginning of the previous year. The harvest was carbon neutral.

Now instead of starting our carbon counter in the present, as Manomet does, let’s start it at the time the stand was last harvested. Figure 2 (below) takes a single stand of trees and starts the accounting 30 years ago, back in 1982. The dotted line is the zero net carbon level (this accounting doesn’t include any carbon other than that from combustion and it does not consider the carbon in the stumps and other unharvested components). The trees capture carbon for 30 years, which is shown by the downward sloping red line. In 2011, the forest is thinned, and the stand gives up the portion of its carbon accumulated in the last 30 years. The stand regrows over the next 30 years (it sequesters more carbon this time, due to improved silviculture).

Clearly this scenario has a number of simplifying assumptions that may change the shape and magnitude of the points on the chart. But the underlying conclusion is also clear: if biomass is harvested from existing forests that will be sustainably managed in the future, there is no debt. I call this “dividend-then-benefit” logic.

The Manomet authors have made it clear that their study’s scope was limited to Massachusetts. Since my background is in Maine’s wood supply, I’ll concede that it’s possible that Massachusetts cannot support any further growth in the use of wood for energy without depleting the stock of trees, though it’s worth noting that the U.S. Forest Service estimates that Massachusetts is presently harvesting only 25 percent of its annual growth. One should not assume that the Massachusetts conclusions can be extrapolated to other states. And none of that changes the Manomet study’s fallacy of not accounting for the already-accrued carbon dividend inherent in sustainably managed working forests, whether they are located in Massachusetts or elsewhere.

Manomet’s debt-then-dividend axiom is a flawed basis for a proper understanding of the carbon benefits that wood-to-energy can provide. In fact, Manomet gets it backwards. There is no debt if the forest system has been in growth-to-harvest equilibrium or has a growth-to-harvest ratio greater than 1/1 and the forest is managed sustainably so that the net stock of biomass does not deplete. By limiting its scope to only looking forward from 2011, Manomet ignored the “money in the bank” that’s been accruing for decades, which would be like ignoring the money you already have in the bank when deciding whether or not you can afford to take out a mortgage.

Wood-to-energy from sustainably managed forests, a process that all of Europe has codified in its carbon accounting rules, can provide net-zero carbon emission or even positive carbon sequestration if the woody biomass stock is not depleted or grows over time. A more detailed analysis of this subject can be found here.

The biomass curve assumes that the biomass used in 2011 is from sustainable forests that have already sequestered the CO2. The model assumes a 2.5% annual growth rate in demand. Improved silviculture increasing yield per acre assumed to match the growth in demand.

William Strauss is the founder and president of FutureMetrics. He is also the chief economist for the Biomass Thermal Energy Council (Washington, DC) and for the Maine Pellet Fuels Association

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