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Students help college convert to locally sourced, biomass fuel

by gagnonlumber - January 16th, 2012.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

Written by Paul Frederick

Frank Gorham’s family has worked the land on his West Rutland farm since 1840.

“Sixty years ago this farm was primarily crop and pasture land,” says Gorham, who now grows garlic and grapes along with his greenhouse operations. He moved away from livestock years ago when he found dairy farming “a hard way to lose money.”

Much of his land reverted to forest, until now only about 20 percent is still open. As a result, income generated from the sale of forest products has become more important for paying taxes and keeping the farm intact for the next generation. Gorham has been managing his forestland for over thirty years now with the help of several foresters.

The farm is enrolled in Vermont’s Use Value Appraisal Program (UVA or “Current Use”), which requires landowners to follow a forest management plan. In exchange, their property appraisal is reduced for tax purposes from “fair market value” to “use value.”

Gorham does much of his woods work himself, but sometimes hires professional loggers for larger projects. When a timber sale involves large volumes of low-quality wood, selling it can be a challenge.

“The trees that initially grow back when open land returns to forest are often not desirable for producing lumber or other higher value products. In many cases these trees are only suitable for use as firewood or pulpwood,” explains Eric Hansen, Rutland County Forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation. Hansen works with private forestland owners and administers the UVA Program in the county.

But Rutland County landowners like the Gorhams now have an alternative market much closer to home, thanks to the recently installed wood-fired cogeneration system at Green Mountain College and the launch of the Poultney Woodshed Project.

In 2005 Green Mountain College began to consider converting to a biomass-fired cogeneration system, prompted by students’ concerns about their school’s heating plant — which then burned #6 fuel oil.  The students, as part of their honors class, had investigated the option of converting to a biomass-fueled heating system. The study’s final report showed that the system could reduce carbon emissions and lead to significant cost savings.

The resulting cogeneration system, commissioned in 2010, can supply up to 80 percent of the school’s heat and 20 percent of its electricity. Previously the college had used nearly 230,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil annually, which represented over 70 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions. The wood boiler uses about 5,000 tons of woodchips in a typical heating season — equivalent to about 2,000 cords of firewood. The $5.8-million project is expected to pay for itself in 18 years.

“It’s been a win-win situation for the college — saving on heating costs while reducing our carbon emissions,” says Kevin Coburn, GMC Director of Communications.

The Poultney Woodshed Project, an outgrowth of the heating system conversion, was initiated by the college with the help of the Hubbard Brook Foundation to create a local, community-based energy movement similar to Vermont’s local food movement. The project has been funded by the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, the High Meadows Fund, the Riverledge Foundation and the Northern States Research Cooperative. The goal is to help the college identify a local supply of biomass produced using sustainable forestry practices and thereby stimulate the local forest economy and strengthen the local community.

A diverse group of stakeholders convened over the last year to determine the feasibility of purchasing sustainably-harvested wood fuel from local sources. The college decided that initially it purchase wood from Rutland County landowners, and that “sustainably harvested” will be defined as having come from any property enrolled in the UVA Program. Only fuel produced from stem wood is eligible, and no salvaged dead trees may be used. The sustainability standard is expected to be expanded and strengthened as the program matures.

Wood fuel destined for the college is purchased by Gagnon Lumber in Pittsford under a contract with Cousineau Forest Products.  As the college needs fuel, the wood is chipped and delivered. The mill keeps a log of deliveries, by ownership, to confirm that the procurement standards are being met.

Ken Gagnon of Gagnon Lumber notes, “The chipper wood spec that we use for Green Mountain is considerably looser than that used for firewood. We can use species that people don’t want to see in their wood sheds — it is not the same product.”

The Poultney Woodshed Project has been welcome news to Frank Gorham, who is currently preparing a timber sale that will supply wood to Gagnon Lumber and Green Mountain College. Gorham observes, “The money Green Mountain College spends on fuel circulates in the local economy so that everyone in the supply chain wins. If this works out for the college, then it should work for other schools and colleges as well.”

Landowners, foresters or loggers that would like to participate in the program may contact Gagnon Lumber at 483-6550 for more information. For more information on the Poultney Woodshed Project or Green Mountain College’s biomass heating system, visit


Paul Frederick is a wood utilization forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation. He can be contacted at This article was prepared as part of an ongoing series in environmental education sponsored by the Rutland Natural Resources Conservation District. For more information, visit

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