April 5, 2007
By CYRUS LEVESQUE
BRISTOL — Last year the Mount Abraham Union High School switched to a greener, cheaper mode of warming the building when it installed a wood chip-fired heating system. That idea began with a simple science class project by Jessie-Ruth Corkins and Christi Kroll.
Now, Corkins and three other MAUHS students are shooting for a more ambitious goal: switching much of the state to biofuels.
The four students over the last several months have developed a plan to promote the production of fuel pellets from switchgrass, a hardy prairie grass believed to hold promise for producing ethanol or other biofuels. They would begin with a fuel pellet factory sponsored by both the state and federal governments. The goal is to have half or more of Vermont’s heating energy come from pellets in 10 years.
“It makes so much common sense,” said senior Ashley Sandy. The idea for the program began with a project of hers at the Governor’s Institute of Engineering last summer. After returning to school, she and three others — Corkins, Ethan Laveillee, and Logan Bessette — looked into the practicality of the idea, and found it was worth pursuing. “When you crunch the numbers, it almost seems like there’s no reason not to do it.”
And they aren’t the only ones who thought so. “We need a new energy policy. You guys are leading the way, and it’s quite surprising,” said Rep. Peter Welch on Tuesday, when he visited MAUHS to hear the proposal. Students from social studies and other classes observed the meeting in the library between the group and Vermont’s member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The group has also taken their plan to the agriculture committees of the state legislature, seeking support on their end. The group has estimated that their plan would cost about $2.5 million over two years. About $1.2 million of that would be needed for an experimental pelletizer facility itself. It would take about 14 such facilities to process the fuel for the entire state, they say.
The pellets would be used in home heating. While transportation is also a major use of fuel and strain on the environment, the MAUHS students said that energy used for heating is “low-hanging fruit,” meaning that it would be easier to address than most other energy use problems.
They recommend minimizing transport expenses by locating the first facility in either northern Addison County or southern Franklin County, to be close to both the likely production locations and Chittenden County, Vermont’s main energy consumer.
The rest of the funding would be needed to help farmers transition to growing switchgrass and other fuel crops in addition to or instead traditional feed crops, to establish a biofuels co-operative, and other support measures. “It has potential to help Vermont in a lot of ways,” Laveillee said. “The sooner we can start it, the better.”
The group argues that this proposal would help Vermont farms, partly by making an alternate crop economically viable. “While milk prices are low and the cost of farming is so high, that is an area that could help a lot,” said Bessette, whose family operates a dairy farm with 130 milkers. “I just want our farm to continue, maybe someday take it over.”
The students have estimated it would take roughly 100,000 acres of land devoted to switchgrass to produce enough energy for Vermont’s home heating needs — an amount they said roughly equivalent to all the Vermont farmland that went fallow between 1992 and 2002.
In the long run, the plan may also help farmers and the rest of the state because by the group’s rough calculations, heating a house with fuel pellets would cost significantly less than with fuel oil, and the money spent on it would stay in the state.
The group is also partly motivated by environmental concerns. “Vermont farmers are slowly declining and global warming is happening,” Leveillee said. “This whole biofuels thing ties both concerns together.”
MAUHS physics teacher Tom Tailer has been closely involved with the group, but he said that this was primarily their effort, and the students have been taking the lead. Tailer said that that has made a big difference with the reception they have received from legislators. “They really treated the students differently,” he said after the state legislature learned the work was not the result of their own initiative, not a class project.
The House Committee on Agriculture heard the proposal last week. “I was so impressed with the work they’ve done,” said Addison County Sen. Harold Giard, a Democrat from Bridport. “It fits in not only with what the legislature wants to do but with the energy policy (now under debate).”
Giard said that he is trying to set up meetings between the MAUHS students and the leadership of the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the Agency of Natural Resources, so the MAUHS group can get feedback on and refinement of their plan from the experts.
“I’m really going to bat for them here in the legislature,” Giard said.
Tailer said that the project would eventually become economically self-sufficient, but switchgrass takes several years to mature, so it would be difficult to make the transition without government support. He compared it to cars running on hydrogen fuel cells when there are few or no filling stations in the area, or the QWERTY style of keyboard remaining in use even though other arrangements would make typing quicker and easier.
To Laveillee, the problem is simply a classic “chicken or the egg” situation. “We need to have this transition,” he said. “One or the other is not going to happen by itself.”