Wood heat montpelier vt
A wood-fired heating plant in Montpelier has been providing heat to Vermont's Statehouse since the 1940s. Now the city is moving forward with a plan to expand the plant and pipe excess heat to public and private buildings around downtown in this narrow valley. - 

America's smallest state capital - as well as one of its coldest - is getting into the utility business. Montpelier, Vt., a small city of just 8,000 residents, announced that it intends to sell heat generated at a wood-fired heating plant to businesses throughout downtown.

Vermont Public Radio's Kirk Carapezza reports.

Kirk Carapezza: This capital city is small -- just 8,000 people live here -- but it has a big plan to address its energy future.

John Hollar: This is not rocket science.

Montpelier Mayor John Hollar says the idea is to expand this wood-fired heating plant he's standing next to. It's been serving the Statehouse since the 1940s. Pipes will run under these downtown streets to carry heat and hot water to public and private buildings. The fuel will be local Vermont timber. The cost: $20 million dollars.

Hollar: Our country has been founded on municipal investments and I don't see this project as markedly different from other municipal investments.

But there are skeptics, including city councilor Tom Golonka. He supported the plan but only after it was modified to be phased in because otherwise, he says:

Tom Golonka: We will be left holding this huge bill in infrastructure cost and the bond debt that we'd incur, and we wouldn't have the revenue stream to support it.

One building that could benefit is the Union Elementary School. It burns more than 60,000 gallons of heating oil each year. Sitting outside the school on a picnic bench, lobbyist Liz Edsell says if Montpelier wants to reduce its carbon footprint, district heating makes sense.

Liz Edsell: Both for the environment and the economy, it's something that Vermonters are wanting to see local action on and not just leave it to the state or leave it in the hands of the energy companies.

City officials expect part of downtown to be served by the new heating system about a year from now. It'll be just the third such district in North America after St. Paul, Minnesota and Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island.