BARRE — Twelve years ago, the Barre Town Middle and Elementary School was, to put it bluntly, an energy hog. It was both costly and inefficient to heat the large building with electricity throughout the winter.
Today, the school atop Quarry Hill Road is a 21st-century model of energy efficiency. For the last decade, Barre School has used an environmentally friendly, wood-fired furnace system that’s fed low-grade, sustainably harvested wood chips from forestlands in Vermont and surrounding regions. The changeover to biomass energy has saved Barre Town tens of thousands of dollars in fuel expenses and, in the words of Principal Tim Crowley, made the school “part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
Appropriately, the Barre Town School was the backdrop last Thursday for a press conference convened by the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC), which promotes the use of renewable energy resources nationwide. With findings from its first-ever “Vermont Wood Fuel Supply Study,” the Montpelier nonprofit made the case that Vermont has ample additional supply for expanding its use of biomass energy. It determined the wood-fuel capacity in Vermont and 10 surrounding counties in New York and Massachusetts, and how much of it could be reliably and economically harvested in an eco-friendly way.
The study found that Vermont has plenty of additional wood to burn — specifically, some 20 million tons of “underutilized” wood that grows here annually. Of that, about 1.5 million tons are considered “low-grade,” i.e., unsuitable for products such as wood veneer, furniture or construction. Even after other constraints such as political opposition, market forces and the limitations of land access are factored in, “We think that there’s ample supply here, if managed sustainably, to support the increased use of biomass,” says Chris Recchia, BERC’s newly appointed executive director.
Vermont’s forest experts agree. Steve Sinclair is forest director for the Vermont Department of Forests, Recreation and Parks. He says the BERC study will go a long way toward alleviating public fears and concerns that Vermont’s forest resources are being overutilized and harmed by expanding timber extraction.
“I don’t think that our country can be secure until we have natural security,” says Sinclair. “In order for this country to be secure, we have to rely upon our natural resources, using them in a sustainable manner to make us free from our dependence on foreign oil and everything that goes along with that.”
Increasingly, small-scale wood energy is being seen as a wise, eco-friendly option for northern states such as Vermont. In the last 10 years, 32 other public schools in the state have followed the Barre Town model. This fall, more than 20 percent of all Vermont schoolchildren will attend a school that’s heated with wood-fuel energy. BERC’s founding executive director, Tim Maker says Vermont’s public facilities could meet virtually all their heating needs with locally supplied wood resources if they’re managed properly.
Which means wood fuel could become the next step in Vermont’s growing localvore movement — that is, the drive to consume products grown and harvested in the area. As BERC board President Scudder Parker points out, the goal isn’t to build expensive, industrial-sized facilities like the McNeil Generating Plant. Instead, the group is focused on small-scale projects that individual communities can own, operate and manage in a sustainable manner.