Making Natural Gas & Oil Redundant. August 2016.
A Wakeup Call
I experienced a wake up call a year ago, while talking with a county official who said, “I know that when I press the start switch on a gas heating system that it will work. I know how it works.” That was enough to tell me that I had not gotten through to him and that, as economic development officer for the county, he really wanted to see the new interstate gas pipeline built and that the county should convert from oil and propane to natural gas. I did not know how to get through to him, that there could be both, that the transition could be engineered for and combined with low temperature and renewable thermal systems serving the counties institutions and businesses, that there could be an effective path to full transition within a relatively brief period
The opposition to fracking and high pressure pipelines goes on, as it should. At the same time, I believe we need a clear vision and plan to reverse the expansion of gas and replace its current use with benign alternatives. Nonprofits, working individually and together, can help create positive alternatives to gas and oil – town by town, city by city. This transition is not easy but totally doable.
We have many examples to follow, including both early pioneers and recent success stories. The college where Einstein received his teaching diploma and later taught at made its transition from fossil fuel heating (coal) to renewable energy in 1942. That same system continues to operate today, albeit with replacement of its core driver, the heat pumps. It is one of four WW2 era heat pump systems heating multiple buildings in central Zurich. These are benign, renewable, steady state energy systems.
The relatively new business campus of the software firm Epic Systems Corporation, in Wisconsin, uses a similar technology. Cornell Tech, opening in 2017 on Roosevelt Island in New York City, will be close to carbon neutral. Cornell University’s campus in Ithaca uses deep lake water cooling, super low energy, and shares it’s cool with Ithaca High School. Many of the high rise buildings in Toronto are cooled with deep lake water cooling, about a 90% reduction in carbon footprint.
A Failed Vision and a Success Story
I had a dear friend in Dublin, Ireland back when I was in my twenties, Peter Byrne. He had a vision for energizing Dublin using by-product heat from existing power generating stations, effectively heating the city with waste heat. Even though my friend was then a senior engineer at the state owned electric utility, the Electricity Supply Board, his efforts were ignored and he was sidelined.
I am delighted to say that late last year the Irish government provided substantial funding to two waste heat district energy municipal systems for Dublin, thanks to the expert work of one exceptional young woman, Donna Gartland and her agency, City of Dublin Energy Management Agency (CODEMA).
More than a decade after first meeting my Irish friend Peter, I met Hans C. Mortensen on one of his visits to the US. At the time he was president of the cooperatively and municipally owned thermal energy transmission company, the CTR, serving 98% of the greater Copenhagen area with recycled and renewable heat, an extraordinary achievement, a result of multiple municipalities cooperating. Back in the seventies, in the days of oil crises, and several colleagues had been part of a team charged with forming the Danish energy policy. The policy that this leading group of energy planners in Denmark came up with was the same as my friend clearly articulated for Dublin; same timeframe, same sensible policy. The Danish plan reached a high level of fruition, the Irish plan has taken 40 to 50 years to get to where it is as of last year, committed to recycled and renewable thermal district energy for significant sections of Dublin.
Ireland quickly burnt through its first natural gas field, the Kinsale field. It’s second gas field, Corrib, came on line recently has a remaining life expectancy of about ten years. I watched Ireland become a natural gas dependent country, entirely bypassing its rich sources of renewable low temperature ambient heat and sources of high temperature waste heat. Ireland does have a carbon tax but it is not yet high enough to prod the needed change.
Ireland choose to maintain the split between electric generation and thermal energy supply. Denmark understood the synergy between the two and capitalized on it. Denmark and the other Nordic countries have a depth of experience and knowhow in sustainable energy systems.
The situation in the US is much the same as in Ireland. The efficiency of electric power generation in the US is lower than in Ireland. Of the relatively few district/community energy systems that are operating in the US most are old legacy systems using nineteenth century technology and almost all are fossil fueled.
Over the past 25 years I have tried to get several recycled and renewable district/community energy systems going or at least seriously looked at. The proposed systems were for Burlington, Vermont; two towns in Ontario, Canada (Brockville and Coburg); downtown Honolulu, Hawaii; and several district projects in New York state. All were proposed as nonprofits, cooperatives or simply as a “let’s look and see if it works”. All met with resistance or disinterest from key participants. And while none have progressed to the stage of breaking ground, there is strong interest and advancing development efforts in a least four of the locations.
The first project was in Burlington, Vermont. Over a two year period we we formed a non-profit, Burlington District Energy Corp., purchased the needed software in 1992 (HeatPlan from Washington State University) and completed detailed preliminary layout, design and costing. The McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vermont was built thirty years ago by the city electric department, Burlington Electric Department, a fine municipal utility. The wood chip fired power plant was designed with the capacity to supply steam heat to the nearby campus of the University of Vermont (UVM). Instead the power plant dissipates its by-product heat through cooling towers and a chimney stack.
Over the last thirty years there have been multiple attempts to use the byproduct heat from McNeil, and a continuing effort is underway. The first attempt was by the city and was based on steam as the heat medium. The second was by the non-profit formed by me and a colleague (Peter Duval) and was based on a hot water based distribution system (Burlington District Energy Corp). The third attempt was effort by a group with the acronym POETS. The fourth effort (for close to a decade of effort now) is by a focused group of resourceful and capable local citizens working with the city electric department and called Burlington District Energy Service (http://www.burlingtondistrictenergy.org/). In May 2016 the Burlington utility put out a request for information from suitable development partners for the district heating project and selected a Canadian private utility, Corex. Little further progress appears to have been made.
About fifteen years ago reading a sustainability report for UVM, I recall it stated that 80% of the college’s carbon footprint is due to heating, adding that the report writers knew of no way to replace the carbon based system (regrettably I have lost the report citation). A mile away from the college campus is the McNeil Generating Station, waste heat from the power plant could have been heating the campus for the past 30 years. Instead the college burns natural gas.
Vision for the Future
I got married at the Mead Chapel at Middlebury College, our reception was at the Middlebury Snow Bowl, my wife graduated from the college and grew up on a Champlain Valley farm. The Town of Middlebury converted to natural gas within in 2017/2018, a $130 million gas pipeline now carries gas to the town. The Vermont Public Service Board approved the gas pipeline to Middlebury, saying in its order that the project was “in the public good”. No vision of the many positive alternatives was never developed, except for the combustion of biomass throughout the town. The studies and decision tree for viable renewable and recycled energy alternatives are complex and time consuming – but essential if we are to reduce our carbon footprint
Agri-mark is one of the largest energy users in Middlebury, it burns close to two million gallons of heavy fuel oil, known as #6 oil. Agri-mark is a major dairy processing plant, among its many products is Cabot Cheese. Another big energy user is Middlebury College. The college gets more than 60% of its heating by burning wood chips. On a recent visit to the college it was burning #6 fuel oil.
A transition away from fossil fuels in Middlebury College would best involve the college changing its steam heat distribution system to hot water, and the lower the temperature the better for using renewable thermal such as solar thermal, heat pumps and recycled heat. Steam cannot be stored, hot water can be effectively stored on a daily or longer term. By-product heat from the milk processing plant could be recycled at a temperature useful enough for heating nearby commercial facilities and possibly sections of the town.
A study was done for Middlebury, the study focussed exclusively on biomass energy, as such it missed out on the array of ambient and recycled energy that could be harnessed. In supporting the expansion of natural gas pipelines to the Town of Middlebury, I question – did Middlebury College fail its community. The college did not take on the challenge of making the transition to combustion free renewable energy nor did it lead the town towards a cooler quieter energy system, one based less on combustion and more on compression, on recycled energy, solar thermal, on thermal storage, and on the path to the greener combustion free future we need.
The Vermont state energy plan calls for a 90% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. If it is to meet that goal the heating of indoor space by burning fossil fuel is out of the question.
In New York State. New York’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV) is a fine vision for electricity, much needed, but it did not include thermal energy, at least not until a limited heat pump program was added. Likewise New York’s “Clean Energy Standard” is not about energy, it is only about electricity.
The efficiency of fossil power plants in New York averages 32%. In the Capital District of Albany and surrounding towns, by-product heat from the four power plants, within view from the Empire Plaza, housing state agencies, dissipate enough by-product heat to heat and cool the capital district, or a significant part of it. The energy vision in New york State is largely limited to electricity, as such it is of questionable adequacy.
I felt moved being part of the day-long opposition to the Pilgrim Pipeline in Albany, NY earlier this year, to stand with 1,500 others from so many groups. Likewise with the 300,000 strong People’s Climate March in 2014. More recently, I joined in with 200 others in support of the the twenty people who choose to get arrested in opposition to the AIM/Spectra pipeline in Peekskill, NY, including Aidan Ferris from the Earth Guardians in Woodstock.
Meanwhile in Middlebury, Jason Kaye and Alex Prolman locked themselves to a machine on a construction site one day in 2016, stopping construction of the gas pipeline for a day. For both it was their first experience of civil disobedience, a choice they did not take lightly. To be chained to heavy machinery is a vulnerable position. Jason Kaye headed the Middlebury Sustainability group and worked as a carpenter. His action follows the years he and others spent appealing the application by Vermont Gas Systems to build the pipeline and the subsequent approval of the fossil fuel project by the state regulatory agency.
Important as it is, opposition is not enough. We need a vision and a plan that presents more attractive alternatives than expanding gas transmission and distribution pipelines. A plan that will stop the expansion of gas and replace its current use, as the result of the implementation of better alternatives. Nonprofits can do this, either individually or working together, town by town, city by city, creating positive alternatives. One clear vision channelled in an organization that can apply for grant funding to develop and distribute information and concrete proven plans, learn how to use one of more open source web-based renewable district energy analysis tools (such as Thermos, PlanHeat, and HotMaps) and use intelligence energy concepts such as can be found in the work of 4th Generation District Heating, http://4dh.dk/.
Ideally one voice, many orgs, a blessed unrest as Paul Hawken so eloquently wrote. One clear vision without any one way, just benign and sustainable energy pathways.
August 17, 2016, minor edits May 2019