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Burlington's 34-Year-Old District Energy Plan Is Gathering Steam

By District Energy posted 05-02-2018 00:00


Katie Jickling, Seven Days Vermont

Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station  JAMES BUCK


David MacDonnell has been working at Burlington's Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station since it first opened in 1984.

For 34 years, the biomass plant's dull roar has continued almost unabated, said MacDonnell, who now serves as director of generation. On a Tuesday in April, he watched as vats of wood chips poured unceasingly into blisteringly hot fires, to be converted into energy powering the homes of Burlingtonians.

But just a fraction of the fuel will end up as electricity.

The baby-blue plant in the north end of the city operates at just 24 percent efficiency; three-quarters of its possible energy output is lost at various steps in the process or in the steam that pours out of its nine-story smokestack in the Burlington Intervale.

From the moment McNeil started up, the city has conducted at least five studies exploring the feasibility of rerouting some of the wasted energy via underground pipes to heat buildings in downtown Burlington.

Each time, the analysis revealed an insurmountable obstacle: a shortage of cash, a scarcity of customers or a lack of technical expertise.

So why is the plan for "district heating" or "district energy" back on the table?

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