Inside the furnace, Inside the plant.

McNeil Generating Station manager John Irving

A couple weeks ago I was assigned to shoot the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vermont.  This was my second visit with plant manager John Irving and it was, excuse my lack of descriptive writing skills…cool.  Actually it was hot, red hot, because the McNeil Generating Station is a wood-burning plant that produces much of the electricity to suit Burlington’s needs (about 50 megawatts at full load).  The plant is massive with an impressive configuration of pipes, valves and dials, that constantly regulate the flow of fire and steam for energy production.  The plant’s manager, John Irving, clearly loves his job.  His tour is thorough and informative as he outlines the construction of the plant, recent upgrades as well as plans for the future – which is where the Free Press comes in.  In a tone reminiscent of a Boy Scout describing his greatest Pinewood Derby Car, Irving grows excited and more impassioned as the tour switchbacks through a series of stairs, under pipes, over steam and into control rooms.  He loves what he does and why wouldn’t he?  Irving works inside a building that never quits.  Constantly generating electricity for the major power companies in Vermont, McNeil, when running at full load, burns approximately 76 tons of whole-tree chips per hour. Irving compared this figure to cords, the standard measurement that the average homeowner would use to order their wood, saying that McNeil burns about 30 cords per hour.  Wow.  When you see the firebox in action you believe it.

McNeil Generating Station manager John Irving


McNeil Generating Station plant manager John Irving

Irving’s tour kept our knees high and our heads low.  We tromped through the heart of the plant as Irving left no area out of reach.  As a member of the press, I especially appreciate being able to see it all.  We’re often kept behind closed doors or our tours are edited with many elements out of sight.  This visit to McNeil was a candid exploration of a truly impressive operation.

McNeil Generating Station control room

Inside the control room the guys break from a very focused routine to talk with us.  The plant had just been placed back online after being shutdown for servicing when we arrived.  The process of starting the plant is a delicate dance requiring exact timing and precision by a coordinated crew of workers.  I loved this room and all of the old dials reminiscent of the 1970’s, the era it was built.

McNeil Generating Station plant manager John Irving

Plant manager John Irving waves his hands to activate a light’s motion sensor as we enter a battery storage room.

McNeil Generating Station plant manager John Irving.


Firebox at McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vermont

This photo did not do this sight justice.  The intense heat sends these wood chips into the air, bouncing, springing from the revolving floor of the firebox.  The firebox itself is a massive room standing several stories high.  The room is a nightmare to look at, it’s just a swirling inferno burning through 76 tons of wood chips an hour.

McNeil Generating Station plant manager John Irving

Reporter Joel Baird and plant manager John Irving walk out of the plant to tour the outside and the smoke stack.

McNeil Generating Station plant manager John Irving

Farewell for now McNeil Generating Station.  Each visit proves more interesting than the one before.  To read Joel’s full story and learn about McNeil’s plans to harness exhausted steam click here: Feeling the heat?  Wood-burning power plant could send more heat our way.



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