MONTPELIER, Vt. — When cold weather sets in anew about a year from now, city leaders are hoping part of downtown will be served by a new heating system, with wood chips burned as fuel in two massive boilers near the Vermont Statehouse at the west end of downtown and hot water piped to the heart of the business section a few hundred yards east.
“There’s been a very active, successful district heating system here since the 1940s” serving the Statehouse and surrounding government office buildings, City Manager William Fraser said in an interview. “It’s been wood-fired since the 1980s. All we’re really doing is connecting” that system to the municipal buildings and businesses that line the two main streets in this capital of about 8,000.
Supporters of the project, which has been under discussion for nearly a decade, say burning wood chips harvested from Vermont’s forests will reduce the city’s reliance on No. 2 heating oil, for which prices have been volatile and mostly rising in recent years. They also say wood heat will lighten the city’s carbon footprint.
“The governor is thrilled,” said Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, a top aide to Gov. Peter Shumlin. “It’s good for the image of Vermont, good for the folks working in the forests, in the timber industry. It’s a good economic development tool for the city of Montpelier.”
But there’s been trepidation about the cost of the heating system, which is pegged at about $18 million. The City Council voted 4-2 on Aug. 21 to pull out of the project, before reversing itself in a 5-1 vote a week later after a public outcry.
State officials, who were getting ready to buy the twin boilers to be installed in a renovated heating plant next year, were looking for a firm commitment from Montpelier by the end of August, so they would know how big the boilers should be.
Councilors at the Aug. 21 meeting complained that they hadn’t seen construction bids for the project yet, and that promising to go ahead would amount to writing a blank check.
“There are too many variables, too many unknowns,” a project critic, City Councilor Alan Weiss, said in an interview. He complained that supporters initially said the project would work financially just with public buildings hooked up. More recently, he said, word has come that it would depend on at least some private property owners to hook up as well.
The council’s vote against the project set off a new round of talks between city and state leaders, and they came up with a new plan: The state would invest in boilers big enough to accommodate the city’s demand if the city agreed to build just phase one, a pipe extending block east of the state complex. That’s what got support from the City Council.
Fraser said councilors are expected to vote on extending the project in November, after construction bids come in. He said customers hooking onto the system are expected to about break even at first, but to save money as oil prices rise in the years to come.
The city is just picking up a portion of the cost. The U.S. Department of Energy provided it an $8 million grant; the state is chipping in another $8.75 million, with a $7 million appropriation by the Legislature and another $1.75 million in grants and loans from Vermont’s Clean Energy Development Fund. City residents voted last year to chip in with a $2.75 million bond issue.