BURLINGTON — City officials say a developer's commitment that his proposed Burlington Town Center redevelopment would participate in a district heating system makes the energy-saving plan viable in the Queen City.
Mayor Miro Weinberger and a group of potential users and utility representatives announced last week that they're hiring Corix, a utility infrastructure company, to develop a plan for implementing district heating. Such a system delivers heat and hot water from a central source using underground pipes — similar to an electric grid but for heat instead of electricity.
Heat for the system would be drawn from the waste heat at the wood-burning McNeil Generating Station. Corix estimates the system could reduce Burlington's greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by reducing reliance on natural gas for heating.
Weinberger said the timing of the announcement at a news conference was not political, though it occurred the day before the City Council decided to have residents vote in November on a new zoning district that is crucial to the Town Center project. The mayor is a major proponent of the mall site's redevelopment.
Advocates have pushed for a district heating system in Burlington since the McNeil plant was built in 1984, and the city has studied its practicality numerous times during that period, Weinberger said.
When the mayor was first elected in 2012, he said, he campaigned on two issues. One was restoring city finances, where's he's had considerable success. The other was addressing a number of "stuck and stalled" city projects, some of which he's tackled, such as a new transit center and upgrades to the waterfront bike path. Others remain in the works, including the Champlain Parkway and dealing with the derelict Moran power plant.
Weinberger said that when he appointed Neale Lunderville to head the Burlington Electric Department, he charged Lunderville with getting district heat done or explaining definitively why it wouldn't work.
Lunderville was close to scrapping the effort and declaring that the system wouldn't work, according to the mayor, but decided to put out one last request for proposals to see if anyone came back with a viable bid.
During that window, plans for the Town Center redevelopment jelled into the mixed-use proposal that the city and voters are now considering, Weinberger said. With the Town Center redevelopment as a customer with potential significant new demand for heat, it makes a downtown district viable, according to Lunderville.
"The Burlington Town Center redevelopment is a game-changer for district energy in the Queen City," Lunderville said in a statement. "Without the strong commitment from both the Town Center and Vermont Gas, our options to create a roadmap for district energy in Burlington were becoming slim."
Vermont Gas Systems has committed to being a partner in creating the new system, Lunderville said.
With institutional customers in the hill section of town, including the University of Vermont and the UVM Medical Center, there are two viable heating districts roughly equidistant from the McNeil plant's location in the Intervale, forming a triangle that would underlie a district heating grid that could be expanded in the future, the mayor said.
The city and the other potential participants have all come together to pay $75,000 for Corix to come up with its plan for a district heating system in Burlington.
"This shouldn't be seen as just another consultant study," Weinberger said, noting that Corix has experience building similar systems elsewhere.
Montpelier completed installation of a district heating system in 2014.