Workers broke ground Wednesday, April 17, on a long awaited cooperative effort between the state and the city to provide wood chip-generated heat to a portion of the downtown.
To make the $20 million project work, the city is tapping into the state’s existing steam plant in back of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) building. The city will convert steam that’s used to heat many state buildings into hot water. It will travel in a series of new 8-inch pipes under State Street, eventually winding its way to Main Street, City Hall, the police station, Union Elementary School and some 16 private landlords, with the potential for more in the future. And although it’s only one of a handful of municipally run systems like it in the country, city officials say it’s no different from other city services.
“It’s been touch and go a number of times and the fact that we’re really building it is a great feeling,” said Bill Fraser, the Montpelier city manager. “Some towns and cities in Vermont provide electricity and many others don’t. Some provide water and sewer—this is a utility service with lines in the ground and meters. It’s not that different from some of the services we provide; it’s just new,” Fraser said.
By converting to biomass, the city expects to save nearly a quarter million dollars in their annual fuel bill. For its part, the state will double the size of its heating plant. The 1940-era boilers will be replaced with boilers that run on wood chips. And all of it will be flood-proofed.
“The boilers are below grade and the 100-year flood is foot and a half to 2 feet above the existing grade out there. So certainly raising those above their 100-year flood would be a great thing,” said Joe Aja, of the Vt. Department of Buildings and General Services.
The project has not been without its hiccups along the way. “First meeting I ever attended in Montpelier city government was 18 years ago and they were talking about district heat,” Fraser said.
More recently—last August—a split City Council initially voted it down because of financial concerns. Montpelier High School was also dropped because of excessive costs. And this winter state officials scrambled to cover $2.5 million in cost overruns.
City officials say the underground pipe-laying this spring and summer will be done in phases to help ease congestion.
“We aren’t closing down the whole downtown at once—that’s the good part. But in those sections there is going to be stop and go traffic, there’s going to be loss of parking and we’re just trying to manage that as best we can,” Fraser said.
Work is scheduled to wrap up by this fall.
More information from the City of Montpelier:
The District Heat Project is a joint project of the City of Montpelier and the State of Vermont to provide local renewable energy to downtown Montpelier. With the rebuilding of the State’s existing central heating plant, modern wood-fired boilers will heat the Capitol Complex and connections will be put in place to expand its service area to City and School buildings as well as connect to private buildings in downtown Montpelier. Once built out, benefits of District Heat include:
Reduced health threatening air emissions from fuel combustion in downtown Montpelier by as much as 11 tons per year.
Replacement of approximately 300,000 gallons of oil per year between the State and downtown buildings as a prime fuel source with locally/regionally produced wood chips keeping that economic activity in the northeast.
Fuel cost stabilization for city government and the school department allowing tax dollars to potentially be redirected toward services or infrastructure rather than to pay rising oil prices.
An economic development opportunity in downtown Montpelier by providing a cleaner and potentially cheaper source of heat for private building owners.
The removal of many private oil furnaces and underground fuel oil storage tanks to be removed from potential flood areas.