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Backstory: Hardest Working Hypocrite

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Chips inside the McNeil Generating Station - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Chips inside the McNeil Generating Station

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.


When it comes to burning wood, I may be a flaming hypocrite. 

Even as I was reporting on the climate impacts of biomass energy in Vermont, I was looking forward to firing up my woodstove at the first sign of frost. 

Earlier this year, my family and I moved to a Waterbury farmhouse equipped with an ancient woodstove and an oil furnace. I hoped to heat the place with more local wood than foreign oil. 

During the weeks I worked on my cover story, "Carbon Quandary," I grilled public officials, experts and advocates about the wisdom of biomass energy projects that add carbon to the atmosphere by burning the very trees that excel at removing it. 

Then on weekends, I'd don a flannel shirt, sharpen my Stihl chain saw, trudge off into the woods behind our house and harvest a few trees for firewood. 

So who was I to question whether Burlington's Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station should be torching trainloads of woodchips to make electricity when I was running my own amateur wood-to-energy operation? 

Critics charge that such biomass plants are a carbon-intensive and inefficient way to power the grid compared to other renewable sources, such as hydro, wind and solar. It seemed a hell of a lot more efficient operation than mine, though. 

The trees I planned to chop up were already dead — most had been downed by wind. But they lay at the base of a steep bank, and I didn't exactly have a grapple skidder handy. 

So after sawing the logs into rounds, I extracted them with a pulley system that involved an old tarp, rope and my Honda Accord.

Then I split the rounds with a maul and stacked them to dry, only to have the wood get immediately soaked by repeated downpours. Before it could fully dry out, everything froze. 

Now, to make a fire on a frigid night, I grab a few icy sticks of firewood from the woodshed and shoehorn them into my woodstove. The room is downright toasty — for anyone within three feet of the stove, that is. 

To move some small percentage of that heat into the rest of the house, I hung a cheap box fan from the doorjamb. The setup keeps us from freezing, but it got me thinking.

The McNeil plant, which is going full tilt this time of year, is half-owned by Green Mountain Power, of which I am a customer. 

So in essence, I'm using electricity generated by burning trees to help me circulate the heat I've generated by burning trees. 

How's that for a carbon quandary?

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