As Vermonters learn more and raise their voices about the future of Vermont's largest polluter, the forestry practices that fuel the McNeil plant are coming under increased scrutiny. Burlington Electric Department (BED) and other biomass proponents argue that wood is harvested sustainably to fuel McMeil, and the plant's operation is necessary for keeping Vermont's forests healthy and intact. In reality, heavy, impactful forms of logging are used to fuel the McNeil plant, and this harvest and combustion of over 350,000 tons of wood is not compatible with mitigating climate change or maintaining ecologically functional, resilient forests.
A 2021 "overstory removal" harvest in Montgomery for the McNeil plant. Photo April 2023.
A 5-acre clearcut in Belvidere which fueled the McNeil plant. The forest plan for this parcel noted that it was "impossible to do any other prescription but a clearcut," because the stocking levels would be "reduced to a similar level [compared to zero stocking after a clearcut] over time due to wind damage and mortality." Clearcut in Winter 2020-2021, photo April 2023.
A Winter 2020-2021 "group selection" harvest for the McNeil plant. Photo April 2023.
To really make sense of BED's claims, it is important to understand the following points:
Whole tree harvesting (and using the tops and limbs to generate electricity) is ecologically destructive and bad for the climate. Even if the McNeil plant lived up to the misleading claim that it burns primarily tops and limbs of trees which would already be cut down for other purposes, this would still not be compatible with a livable future climate or healthy, resilient forests.
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"Sustainability" as defined by the forest industry has nothing to do with avoiding climate and ecological tipping points. Just because trees are logged at a rate lower than they might regrow does not mean that such logging is in any way beneficial to ecological health or the climate.
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Burlington Electric Department does not actually keep track of the diameter or type of wood that is chipped to fuel their plant. Department officials strongly suggest that limbs and tops are the main fuel for the plant, but are unable to concretely and unequivocally state as much. There is strong evidence from site visits, BED documents, public records, and conversations with landowners and foresters that large diameter logs and entire trees are the primary source of McNeil's wood chips.
At the heart of the argument that McNeil is "sustainably" fueled is the claim that McNeil primarily uses limbs, tree tops and other small bits left over from other timber harvests. In reality, McNeil burns primarily tree trunks and large diameter wood in addition to a small amount of branches and tops. No one keeps track of the diameter or type of wood sent to McNeil, so BED cannot make any unequivocal statement about the amount of small-diameter wood burned at McNeil.
The strongest written statement that BED gives on the subject is circumstantial, provided in their June 2023 Carbon and Carbon Dioxide Summary prepared by Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC: "Given the fact that whole tree chips represent such a small portion (16%) of total roundwood harvest in the Vermont counties where McNeil Station procures fuel, it is fair to assume that most of the 'whole tree chips' purchases are tops and branches, and thus a carbon-favored fuel source."
All the evidence that StopVTBiomass has assembled, meanwhile, points to an opposite conclusion: that large diameter wood and tree trunks are the main source of the "whole tree chips" that make up 88% of McNeil's fuel. In fact:
All timber harvest sites for the McNeil plant that community activists have visited had branches and small limbs left behind on the forest floor, not chipped and burned at McNeil. We encourage folks to visit harvest sites themselves (while respecting posted land and active logging operations) and see the kinds of harvests going on. The locations of McNeil's harvests are public information. Information on all the harvests conducted in Vermont from 2020-2023 can be found here, and a map displaying all these sites will soon be available on this website.
StopVTBiomass has heard from a number of landowners enrolled in the UVA program that their consulting foresters have recommended they harvest mature whole trees, chip them and send them to McNeil or Ryegate (Vermont's other biomass electricity plant) in order to make room for other, more "desirable" trees. Nowhere in these discussions did the landowners get the impression that this was an unusual or drastic practice from the foresters' perspective, and one of the foresters implied that biomass power plants were the main outlet for mature trees that are considered "low-quality" for the timber industry.
BED's timber harvesting policy makes no mention of using only limbs, tops, or small diameter wood. It lists logging practices that may provide wood to McNeil, including group selection, shelterwood, "improvement" cuts, and clearcuts up to 25 acres in size (though this size limit is lifted in cases of permanent land clearing).
McNeil is not necessary to keep VT forests healthy. Up to 10% of McNeil's wood supply comes from land that is permanently cleared and will never have the chance to regrow to forest, and even McNeil proponents admit that McNeil is not driving the economics of timber harvesting or land use in Vermont.
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Biomass energy and its impacts on ecosystems and the climate are complex topics! We encourage everyone to learn more, and provide a few resources below for places to start that are directly relevant to the conversation around McNeil.
Biomass Energy, Forests and Climate Library: A library of scientific papers specifically focused on biomass energy.
Massachusetts Forest Watch "Timberspeak" fact sheet. Explains forestry terms and history of mainstream forestry.
Standing Trees Fact Sheet: Forest Health and Management the Northeast US
BiofuelWatch: Biomass industry myths