- Courtesy of Stored Solar
- Ryegate power plant
The 20-megawatt plant shut down on November 23 and will stay closed for at least three weeks as it tries to rebuild the supply of wood chips it needs to generate electricity for the state’s power grid.
The plant provides about 3 percent of the state's electric power needs.
The shutdown comes amid turmoil in the regional biomass power market and complaints that the plant's owner, Stored Solar, has failed to pay some loggers for the hundreds of tons of wood chips the plant burns daily.
The Maine-based company filed for bankruptcy protection in September for seven of the eight biomass power plants it owns in the Northeast. The East Ryegate plant was not among those in the filing.
Stored Solar Enterprises listed more than 100 debtors with combined debts between $10 million and $50 million, including some in Vermont. Its manager, William Harrington, declined to comment on Monday.
Loggers in the region have reported that Stored Solar has been late and unreliable in paying them for years. They also said the scale at the plant is not functioning properly.
Heath Bunnell, a logger from Kirby, told the Public Utility Commission in October that he stopped making deliveries in September and at one point was owed $63,000 for chip deliveries.
“They are running their business without paying for the wood that has been delivered into their Ryegate plant as well as other plants they own,” Bunnell wrote to the PUC, which is considering an extension of the plant’s power contract.
It also provides an important injection of power into an area of the grid far from other large generation sources.
“It’s a great resource to have,” Johnson said. “It’s not a mission-critical resource to have.”
The plant is critical to the region and the rural economies that depend on it, however, said Mike Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.
The plant employs about 21 people and supports about 250 more in the region.
The chips are made from “low grade” timber not suitable as higher value saw logs. They are nevertheless an important revenue source for the forestland owners. A report commissioned earlier this year estimated the total economic activity related to the wood chip market in the area at $14 million.
Critics contend that the plant is inefficient and the waste heat should be captured and used in some way. Lawmakers have sought to link such upgrades to the plant's future power contracts.
Some environmental groups also question the wisdom of generating electricity by burning trees when far more sustainable and climate-friendly solutions, such as solar, wind and hydro, are available.
The claims of renewability have come under fire in recent years by climate activists and scientists who say forests, especially in the southeastern U.S., are being devastated by companies exploiting the demand for "renewable" power, especially overseas.
Local power and forestry officials contend that the timber harvests are conducted in a sustainable manner.