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Vermont adds ‘bio-gas’ to its heating mix

RUTLAND, Vt. — Customers of Vermont Gas Systems are now burning renewable natural gas as a small part of the mix of their overall natural gas consumption, the company announced Thursday.

Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark said the three-month pilot program began in Late July — with a small amount of renewable natural gas flowing into the VGS system, which serves 50,000 customers in northern Vermont. He said the pilot project is enough to heat 350 average homes.

The renewable natural gas — also known as biomethane — is produced by a landfill operator in Quebec and piped into the transmission system, Wark said.

Biomethane gas can also be produced from manure.

“What we hear a lot from folks, and I think we heard it a lot in other energy sectors, is the desire to move toward a more renewable future,” Wark said.

He called the pilot program a “milestone” for the company.

“Not to mention, it fits in perfectly with the work we’ve been doing with a developer who’s creating a biomethane plant in (southern) Vermont,” Wark said.

Wark explained that the amount of the renewable gas that would flow to Vermont at any time during the three-month pilot period will vary.

Wark said that by investing in biomethane, “We’re starting to decrease the focus on traditional natural gas.” He added that it is slightly more expensive than traditional natural gas, a fossil fuel.

VGS is in the process of extending its pipeline south to Middlebury, then connecting to the International Paper mill across Lake Champlain in New York, and finally extending the pipeline to serve parts of Rutland County.

Opposition

Construction on the first phase of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project is already underway. In the process, VGS has encountered vehement opposition from some quarters to the importation of fracked natural gas from Canada.

Opponents cite the environmental damage caused by hydraulic fracking as an extraction method. They also argue that increasing the reliance on natural gas runs counter to the state’s goal of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources.

Paul Burns of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group called the VGS announcement a “greenwash.” “That doesn’t make the bulk of their gas one bit cleaner,” said Burns, VPIRG’s executive director.

While capturing methane gas is laudable, Burns said, he objected to the company calling methane gas from the Quebec landfill “renewable.” He said Vermont’s stated goal is zero waste so landfills no longer exist.

“Landfills are not a source of renewable energy,” he said. “That’s what I find objectionable.”

Sandra Levine, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said VGS needs to go much further if its efforts are going to make a difference.

“The VGS announcement represents a very modest and overdue first step,” Levine said in an email. “It needs to be more than a small pilot program to make a difference and help Vermonters tackle climate change. Going forward, the scale of the VGS biomethane efforts needs to increase significantly.”

As part of the Public Service Board approval of Phase I, Vermont Gas is required to develop renewable natural gas as part of its energy mix.

“While it is admittedly a modest initiative,” Wark said, “it is enormously impactful in the direction that the company is going to be moving in.”

Like Green Mountain Power’s Cow Power program, Wark said, VGS could allow customers to choose how much biomethane they want as part of their natural gas mix.

Renewable gas production helps farmers get rid of manure, reducing phosphorous runoff from farm fields into waterways like Lake Champlain.

Wark also said adding biomethane to natural gas is more efficient than turning methane into electricity.

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