PSB says no to North Springfield biomass
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | February 12,2014
Vyto Starinskas / Staff File Photo
Dana Smith, designer of the proposed Springfield biomass plant, shows a blueprint during a site visit in February 2012.
SPRINGFIELD — The Public Service Board said “no” Tuesday to a proposed $180 million wood-fired power plant in North Springfield, saying it would be too inefficient and emit too many greenhouse gases.
The PSB, however, said it didn’t mean that biomass plants were bad for Vermont.
“Today’s ruling ... should not be interpreted to mean that no wood-fired biomass facility could ever be approved under Section 248,” the three members of the board said. “Our concerns over the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the project are deepened by the expected low level of thermal efficiency.”
In denying the project a certificate of public good, the board stated: “We conclude that the project’s burdens would outweigh its benefits.”
The plant would have burned 450,000 tons of green wood chips annually, and emitted almost the same amount of greenhouse gases, or 448,714 tons of carbon dioxide a year.
In a best-case scenario, the project would have only been 28 percent thermally efficient.
The developers of the North Springfield Sustainable Energy Project are Winstanley Corp. of Concord, Mass., and Weston Solutions of West Chester, Pa.
Adam Winstanley said Tuesday night he wouldn’t appeal.
“We’re obviously incredibly disappointed,” he said. “I poured my heart and soul into it and invested five years and many millions of dollars, several million into this project. It’s a big disappointment.”
In the 156-page decision released Tuesday, the PSB upheld an earlier decision by one of its hearing officers, who had said the project would “interfere” with the orderly development in the region because of heavy truck traffic delivering wood chips to the North Springfield Industrial Park.
But the board went further and said the project “would not promote the general good of the state of Vermont” because of its low level of thermal efficiency and the plant’s expected annual greenhouse gas emissions.
The PSB also said the project’s electricity was not needed, and that similar amounts of power could be provided “in a more cost-effective manner through energy-conservation programs and measures and energy-efficiency and load-management measures.”
Winstanley said he had thought the project was well conceived.
“We believe this is a good project for Vermont, but clearly the regulators have spoken and don’t believe it’s a good fit,” he said. “I think this project would have great benefits for the area.”
He said he had decided against an appeal after consulting with his attorneys Tuesday.
“I’m not going to appeal it,” Winstanley said. “We’ve had two strong, negative rulings. They really didn’t leave any doors open to do a project here. This is pretty final.”
The 37-megawatt project would have been built on a flat field in the North Springfield Industrial Park, next to 300 Precision Drive, an industrial facility owned by Winstanley. It is the former headquarters of Fellows Corp. and now home to several businesses.
Winstanley said he had recently spoken to a company that would have purchased all the power from the plant and built a new facility next to 300 Precision Drive, and created about many jobs in the process.
He said the new company would have been “a very large data center.”
Winstanley said he had disclosed that information to some state officials, but it couldn’t be part of the record in the PSB proceedings.
“It would have large, a high-tech user creating 140 new jobs. It would have been very unique in nature,” he said. “But it’s such a negative ruling, I don’t think there’s much hope I can keep this project moving.”
He said he had considered scaling the project down in size to about 20 megawatts, but given the low cost of natural gas, said that didn’t seem feasible.
Winstanley Enterprises is currently developing a 2.2-megawatt solar project in Brattleboro next to the Holiday Inn. The 8,300-panel project is on 15 acres and one of the largest in Vermont, he said.
The biomass decision was hailed by both state and local organizations that had raised a myriad of questions about the project.
Bob Kischko, chairman of the North Springfield Action Group, said he was “thrilled” with the decision, and surprised.
“I’m in utter shock,” he said, laughing.
Kischko said his group would meet later Tuesday to discuss the decision, and would have a more detailed response later. He expressed concern that the project would be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Jamey Fidel, the attorney for the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the National Wildlife Federation, said the decision was a well-reasoned one, based on the evidence presented during the case.
“I think they made the right decision,” he said. “It’s precedent setting.”
Fidel said that the PSB took pains to say not all biomass operations were bad, but that a plant as inefficient as the proposed one would not be approved.
“There are other uses for our limited wood resources,” he said, adding that greenhouse gas emissions suffered with such an inefficient project.
Springfield Town Manager Robert Forguites said the decision should please many people in town, and disappoint an equal number.
“This is a two-edged sword,” he said. “Certainly the people who are opposed to it had very valid arguments and some of the final decision seemed based on those arguments.”
Forguites added, “On the other hand, if we had that plant and there was no problem with it, there would have been a big increase in the town’s grand list, which we would gladly use.”
Forguites said the project would have added $80 million to the town’s grand list, a 12 percent increase.
“Unfortunately, you don’t know if the bad things are as bad as people think they are,” said Forguites.
The town had remained officially neutral on the project, but had entered into an understanding last summer with the project developers over building a new access road to the industrial park.
The town’s biggest booster of the project, Bob Flint, executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corp., said he wanted to talk to Winstanley before commenting.
Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, which had raised questions about the project but ultimately supported it, said the department was studying the decision.
Recchia said the issue of orderly development and traffic had seen additional information, but had not satisfied the board’s concern.
“I think there are concepts that need to be fleshed out further, some of the assumptions about how biomass is used,” he said. “It needs further discussion.”
Recchia, who is in Washington, D.C., for a conference of the National Association of Public Utility Commissioners, along with PSB Chairman James Volz, and he said Volz didn’t give him a hint of the decision.
“He didn’t tell me. We’re very good about not asking,” he said.
Volz signed the decision, along with board members John Burke and Margaret Cheney, who was recently appointed to the board by Gov. Peter Shumlin.