McNeil Myth vs. Facts

The McNeil generating station is a wood-fired power plant located in Burlington's Intervale just downhill from the Old North End. The plant is the largest single source of carbon emissions in Vermont —approximately 453,000 tons of CO2e/yr in 2021—and, at 50 MW, the highest capacity generating facility in the state. McNeil is operated by Burlington Electric Department (BED) and owned by BED (50%), Green Mountain Power (31%) and Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (19%).  McNeil produces the equivalent of about 1/3 of the power used in Burlington every year. 

Unfortunately, proponents of biomass energy have sown a lot of misinformation regarding the impacts of the McNeil generating station, including a deeply misleading "Myth vs. Fact" page on Burlington Electric Department's website. The following facts are an effort to correct that misinformation, using independent science and citizen research on publicly-available records from the Public Utility Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Myth: McNeil only burns "wood residues" like small branches and sawmill waste.

Fact: The term "residue" is a misleading term to describe the wood burned at McNeil. According to BED, 95% of McNeil's fuel comes from "logging residue and cull material created when harvesting higher value wood products." Within the forestry industry, however, "residue" refers to anything left behind after high-value sawlogs and veneer are taken from a site.  The term is defined by market conditions and does not refer in any way to the size or type of wood. BED contracts yearly with several dozen different suppliers in Vermont and New York for over 300 thousand tons of "whole chipped trees," and "round wood" between 8-20 feet long and 4-20 inches in diameter. In other words, most of McNeil's fuel comes from whole trees and tree trunks, not scraps left behind after a tree is processed for another use. As BED's own harvesting policy makes clear, whole trees are routinely harvested for the sole purpose of being burned at McNeil.

Residue trees can remain standing to help regenerate a logged area.  Residue trees left standing draw CO2 out of our atmosphere, and do so at a much higher rate than the small seedlings that might grow up in their absence. Left to grow, they are just as effective at sequestering CO2 as 'higher-value' neighbors harvested for sawlogs or veneer. If contracts like BED's are in place for the purchase of these "residues," however, the trees are cut, chipped, transported to McNeil, and burned; sending an immediate pulse of CO2 into the atmosphere. 

In theory, burning genuine sawmill or logging residues like branches and sawdust (which only make up a small fraction of McNeil’s total fuel) would be less harmful than burning whole trees. A peer reviewed study from 2018, however, showed that even this form of biomass energy is not compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 C,  because leaving these residues behind to naturally decompose results in a much slower release of carbon and contributes to long-term carbon storage in the soil. In other words, even if McNeil lived up to the dramatically misleading claim that they only burn leftovers from logging projects that would still occur independent of the plant, the plant’s operation would still be incompatible with a livable future climate.

 Myth: McNeil is a carbon-neutral source of power, and we don’t have to count the carbon emissions from biomass. Burning wood is much better for the climate than fossil fuels.

Fact:  McNeil emits about 453,000 tons CO2e/yr (2021 estimate), making it the largest single source of carbon emissions in Vermont. Burning wood emits more greenhouse gasses per kilowatt hour of energy than even the dirtiest fossil fuels, and McNeil burns wet wood at the staggeringly low efficiency of 26%. 

Burlington Electric uses a 2022 VEIC report to claim that McNeil "reduces GHG emissions 85% compared to the most probable option of buying power from the ISO-NE grid."  However, this memo did not count any of the carbon dioxide emitted from burning wood at the plant, only non-CO2 emissions and indirect emissions from the fuel used to harvest, transport and begin combustion of wood. It relies on a gross misreading of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines to justify ignoring combustion emissions. In reality, the IPCC writes clearly that 

“The IPCC approach of not including bioenergy emissions in the Energy Sector total should not be interpreted as a conclusion about the sustainability or carbon neutrality of bioenergy…IPCC Guidelines do not automatically consider or assume biomass used for energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ even in cases where the biomass is thought to be produced sustainably.”

Proponents of wood biomass claim that burning wood for power is carbon neutral because trees will eventually regrow. Trees may grow back if the forest is not converted to another land use, but it takes many decades, and this is not a timeframe that is relevant to our carbon budget. We do not have time to wait for forests to sequester carbon, nor should we be setting back forests’ natural sequestration by industrial harvests for biomass power. From the perspective of our carbon budget, by far the most important consideration is the amount of CO2 coming out of the stack at the time of combustion. 

Myth: Unlike biomass facilities in other parts of the world, McNeil practices “sustainable” forestry that cancels out the carbon emissions and ecological harm caused by cutting trees. 

Fact: McNeil harvests that take place in Vermont follow Acceptable Management Practices and are approved by a Fish and Wildlife Department biologist, but this does not change the fundamental increase in atmospheric carbon that comes from harvesting and burning wood on a mass scale. In 2018, over 770 leading scientists signed a letter debunking the myth that “sustainable management” can make biomass electricity carbon neutral and environmentally friendly, writing:

“Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries - as many studies have shown - even when wood replaces coal, oil, or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is ‘sustainable.’”

Furthermore, heavy, highly impactful forms of logging are used to fuel McNeil. According to Burlington Electric, McNeil burns about 4-5% of the entire state’s total annual forest growth. And that does not account for roughly half of McNeil’s fuel, which is sourced from upstate New York and subject to fewer comprehensive regulations. This quantity of fuel (400,000 -500,00 tons/year) cannot possibly be attained only by collecting branches, sawdust and other small leftovers from existing logging jobs. McNeil’s harvesting policy allows for clearcuts up to 25 acres in size, as well as other forms of heavy logging like “shelterwood” and “group selection” that involve removing nearly all the mature trees from a given area. StopBTVBiomass’s ongoing Forest Mapping project is tracking all recent harvests that go to McNeil to document the location and scale of its impacts. 

Myth: McNeil helps keep rates low for BED and regional electric customers.

Fact: McNeil is quite expensive to run. The plant, which, in Burlington Electric’s own words, “ is currently above market prices,” can only operate regularly because about 35% of its revenue comes from Connecticut Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which BED “unbundles” from McNeil’s power and sells at a profit. In fact, before Burlington Electric secured Connecticut RECs, McNeil operated much less frequently. After selling McNeil RECs to Connecticut, BED purchases cheaper RECs from hydropower to effectively use McNeil as a means of flipping substandard RECs at a profit. (“medium hydro” is not eligible for RECs in nearby states, and biomass is also ineligible in Massachusetts, New York, and other states). 

Besides being a dubious practice as far as actually supporting new, clean, renewable energy, McNeil’s reliance on RECs poses a financial risk to ratepayers. If McNeil becomes ineligible for RECs or Vermont stops allowing unbundled RECs from sources like hydro, McNeil would take a financial hit that could only be made up for by increasing rates—as a Burlington Electric commissioner recently said, ratepayers would be “screwed” in that situation. Both of these risks are clear, near-term possibilities: a House Renewable Energy Standard bill would ban the sale of unbundled Hydro-Quebec RECs, and Connecticut is at some point likely to catch up with other peer states like Massachusetts in eliminating biomass from REC eligibility. 

Myth: McNeil is clean and emits no harmful pollution out of the stack.

Fact: In addition to more than 400,000 tons/year of CO2, McNeil also emits a cocktail of other pollutants known to be hazardous to human health, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates, volatile organic compounds, and ammonia, and is the largest single source of most of these pollutants in the state. The table below shows Department of Environmental Conservation emissions data from McNeil in 2020. 

These pollutants are particularly concerning because some of the most densely populated and historically marginalized communities in the state live downwind of McNeil in Winooski and Burlington’s Old North End. Stop VT Biomass strongly supports better monitoring of health impacts and air quality near the plant.