Randolph Area Community Development corporation Looks At Biomass District Heat
This 19-year old nonprofit is dedicated to battling the forces of abandonment, fires, and neglect to re-vitalize the community. To combat another potential future calamity – rising and volatile energy prices – the Randolph Area Community Development Corporation (RACDC ) turned its attention to a new kind of development project – a biomass district energy facility. Over 3 years, in collaboration with the Town of Randolph, Vermont Technical College (VTC) , and the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC), RACDC has assessed the feasibility of creating a central heat district comprising most of the downtown and industrial areas in Randolph. Modeled on European installations, the system consists of a cooperatively-owned large central boiler fed by locally sourced woody biomass with heat delivered via super-insulated underground pipes. The district can reach buildings located within roughly a mile of the plant – in this case from the industrial zone to the downtown and surrounding village. One of the cheapest available fuel sources, woodchips have for over 15 years heated Randolph’s high school, accruing remarkable savings over the former oil-based system.
The district heat project serves multiple community development goals: a strong local economy, a sustainable local forestry, fossil fuels and carbon emission reduction, and a local energy system buffered from international markets and supportive of local business.
The next step is to create fiscal plans and bring the concept to the public, especially those within the district who would be the district’s customers, and potentially, part-owners. In European co-op models, the ‘profits’ go directly to paying off capital or reducing heating costs. The system requires a considerable up-front investment, and therefore needs enough signed-up users to make it cash-flow appropriate in a short period of time.
There are many reasons it makes sense for our region.
- The 35 mile radius around Randolph has over 750,000 tons of net available woodchips, far exceeding the district heating needs of 12,000 tons per year – wise use of resources will support long term forest health and productivity.
- Our current heating methodology is scattered “power plants” in everyone’s basements – a centralized combustion system can incorporate commercially scaled emissions controls (unaffordable by individuals),
- Wood is low-carbon fuel even when considering the fossil fuels used in production and transportation (consider the intercontinental transport of fossil fuels)
- The additional income from harvest and sale of low-grade wood helps woodlot owners manage their forests.
- Provides a unique opportunity for buildings that hook up to weatherize and install efficiency measures like clock thermostats, attic insulation, lighting efficiency improvements and water conservation measures
- Fewer dollars exported out of the region, state, country – conservatively speaking, this system could keep local at least $3 million dollars currently sent outside to import fuel – the multiplier effect of that change alone could make a huge difference to the long-term viability and competitiveness of our region
With oil prices climbing again toward $4.00, well ahead of predictions, the financial model indicates the biomass district energy option provides a lower cost alternative, even with high up-front capital costs. Yes, commercial users who purchase oil in bulk may still be able to buy oil for less than this price for a time. But these customers may prefer a small price hike plus predictability over the oil price volatility. This district heat concept is relatively new to our country, but it has wide success abroad. Given the volatility of oil prices and the abundance of our biomass, it is a good time to re-engage the public
RANDOLPH ENERGY ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Amazing Progress For Randolph In Just A Few Years
Formed by the Randolph Selectboard in 2007, Randolph Energy Advisory Committee (REAC) was charged with finding ways to reduce the long term use of energy resources within the town. REAC began by looking at energy consumption in town buildings. After performing assessments, energy efficiency improvements were made in the Town Hall, Kimball Library, East Randolph Community Hall and a new, more energy efficient heating system was installed at the Fire Station. In addition, the committee proposed, and the Select Board adopted, a Stationary Equipment Energy Efficiency Purchasing Policy.
In 2008 REAC and its collaborators hosted a Button-Up workshop. After that, the committee put together a hands-on weatherization/energy efficiency workshop. This unique gathering allowed homeowners to work with actual materials and touch and learn about lighting options and phantom loads generated by electric appliances.
REAC endorsed exploring the concept of biomass district-heating for the town and that effort is ongoing. The committee also supports PACE and continues to determine how best to implement it within the town.
Currently REAC is completing a streetlight inventory and in the next year the committee plans to make recommendations to the Selectboard on this issue.
Finally, the committee is planning a “mini energy expo” for May to give homeowners the opportunity to meet local renewable energy businesses and financers.
Participants include weatherization services (energy efficiency), solar installers (air, hot water, heat and electric), and biomass installers (stoves and boilers). Lenders, will be present to describe loan programs for these projects. And there will be information about all the incentives and rebates that support installation.
REAC is always looking for people to join. They meet the second Monday of the month at 6:30 pm at the Town Hall. Frank Reed heads the Energy Committee.