For the past few weeks, the wood-fired McNeil Generating Station in Burlington has been using wood chips from Pinewood Manor in Essex Junction, a 7.4 mile drive away. But the wood from Pinewood Manor has been taking a longer route, traveling nearly 80 miles by truck and train before it can be burned at McNeil.
Instead of driving the wood from Essex Junction through Winooski and into the biomass generation plant in Burlington, the logger running the job has to have it trucked 38 miles north to a rail yard in Swanton. There, it’s loaded onto a train and brought by rail back to Burlington.
“There have been times where we had wood where the trucks go right by McNeil station to go north up to Swanton so they can unload on the train,” said John Irving, the manager of the McNeil station.
It’s inefficient to do it that way; and Irving said it costs Burlington Electric 20 percent more than it would to truck the wood straight to McNeil, but the utility has no choice.
“As part of the original permitting for the plant, the Public Service Board of Vermont required that 75 percent of all the wood received at McNeil station come by train,” Irving said. “And the reason for that is concern about the trucks coming through the more densely populated areas of the state and causing traffic issues.”
So Burlington Electric has contracted about 35 “harvesters” north of Burlington who provide wood from logging jobs – usually branches and other wood that can’t be used otherwise. While these harvesters are mostly based north of Burlington, they work all over the region, sometimes providing wood that’s cut south of the city, then trucked past or through Burlington to Swanton before it makes its way back to McNeil.
“Keep in mind that this has been going on for 30 years,” said Bill Kropelin, the chief forester at McNeil. “This is not a new requirement and this is not a new operation.”
Kropelin said the utility has appealed to the Public Service Board to make a change. In the early 1980s, before the station was generating at its full capacity, Burlington Electric asked for permission to truck in up to 25 percent of the 500,000 tons of fuel that would be required when operating at full capacity. This would allow operators to truck in more than 25 percent of the wood in use at the time without using the roads more than it would at full production.
The argument, Kropelin said, is that “that tonnage, if it’s allowable at full load, should be allowable at something less than full load.”
But the Public Service Board didn’t seem to agree.
“Their clarification was going to be ‘No, you cannot do what you propose. You must bring all wood to the plant by railway until you meet 75 percent of 500,000 [tons], and then you may bring some wood by truck,’” Kropelin said. “And that interpretation would have been totally unpalatable for us for many reasons.”
So the utility went back to the existing arrangement: However much wood it uses, 75 percent must come by rail.
“Ever since then, we’ve been a little gun shy to rock that boat again,” Irving said.
Kropelin said Burlington Electric has approached the city of Winooski twice in an effort to get officials there to back a proposal for more trucking, much of which would pass through Winooski. Each time, he said, the utility got a “totally negative response.”
Winooski City Manager Katherine Decarreau wasn’t able to speak to the specific meetings, which she said happened years ago, but said that generally, the city is wary of the wear trucks put on its roads.
“In general, heavy trucks are a serious burden on the roads,” she said. “They do, over time, a significant amount of damage to your road bed, and they’re frankly very expensive to have rolling through your downtown. So I believe the city’s point of view at the time was simply to limit the impact on our taxpayers of having trucks rolling through the downtown and to limit that to the degree possible on Routes 7 and 2.”