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Biomass pellet plant discussed for industrial park

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February 15, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Some local entrepreneurs, college officials and economic development leaders are talking about the possibility of establishing a new plant that would produce biomass pellets and transform them into steam energy to generate heat and electricity for several businesses in Middlebury’s industrial park.

Plans are still very conceptual at this point, as prospective players in the project are still crunching numbers to see if a biomass pellet/cogeneration facility would be economically and logistically viable for Middlebury. But those involved in the planning are very upbeat.

“This is very promising,” said Morgan Wolaver, owner of Otter Creek Brewing, one of the potential participants. “It’s not completely confirmed, but I think there is a more than 50-percent certainty it could happen.”

It was around a year ago that discussions about a biomass/cogeneration facility began to heat up. Tom Corbin, director of business services for Middlebury College, brought the issue to the fore. Corbin explained that the college has been looking for plentiful, year-round sources of renewable energy crops in an ongoing campaign to reduce its dependency on foreign oil. The institution is in the process of building an 8,000-square-foot addition onto its service building to host a biomass facility that would burn woodchips, instead of oil, to meet most of its heating and energy needs.

Trouble is, there is a lot of competition for biomass products — such as wood chips and pellets — during the colder months, but not a lot of demand or production during the summer. Middlebury College is in the market for biomass year-round, as it can use the substance to generate steam for hot water.

“What we’ve found out is the supply-side (of biomass) needs to mature,” Corbin said. “What helps that happen is year-round demand.”

Corbin decided to see if other area businesses could join Middlebury College to create a year-round demand for biomass in Addison County. He was pleased to find a high level of interest among local businesses.

“It’s an idea that caught on,” said Corbin, who added area farms could also benefit by growing renewable energy crops that could be converted into biomass. Such crops could include switch grass or willow.

Organizers said the project could take shape in the following way: A private entity would be brought in to build, and possibly operate, a biomass pellet/cogeneration facility. Hot steam generated by the facility would be fed to participating businesses through underground pipes. The steam would be used to generate heat and electricity for the users, which could include Otter Creek Brewing, Agri-Mark/Cabot and the Green Mountain Cidery, to name a few.

Corbin said the facility could also be run as either a small public utility, or as an energy cooperative.

“It has a lot of merit,” Corbin said. “But putting it together is no small thing.”

Wolaver agreed. He said potential participants will have to weigh the significant start-up costs. He noted that while it’s in a business’s best interest to gain control of its energy future, “you don’t want to eat up all the capital you need to grow your business, as well.

“We are certainly talking about millions of dollars,” he added.

Still, there could be a substantial payoff for businesses that stay committed to the plan for the long haul. Participants would eventually see their operating costs dip by having a locally grown, renewable energy source that is not subject to dramatic price fluctuations.

Wolaver believes a biomass pellet/cogeneration facility could be built in Middlebury’s industrial park within two to six years, if financing and other details get ironed out.

Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Jamie Stewart is also excited about the plan, but cautioned it is far from a sure thing.

“The only thing decided is it’s worth looking at,” Stewart said.

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