European explorers first watched Native Americans tap trees for their sweet sap in the 16th century, and over the next 200 years, settlers built maple syrup and sugar-making into one of New England’s key industries.
Now, an electric cooperative is working to adapt this seminal American trade to the demands of the 21st century.
With about 400 sugar producers on its lines, Johnson-based Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) sees great potential in the industry for increasing sales, building demand for its growing portfolio of renewable generation, and meeting state-mandated emissions reduction goals.
But that will require moving producers away from the historical practice of sugaring with boilers fired by wood, propane, and diesel and toward the benefits of electrification, says Jeffrey Wright, VEC’s chief operating officer.
“Vermont’s renewable energy portfolio standard requires utilities to encourage users to switch fuel to technologies that reduce emissions,” he says. “This [standard] eventually will create new markets for electricity produced from renewable projects we’re also required to pursue.”
Vermont’s renewable power goals require each utility to be 75 percent renewable by 2032. As a result, VEC is required to build about 24 megawatts of new projects between now and 2032. -To help meet that goal, the coop is banking on the work of one forward-thinking syrup producer and a new relationship with a manufacturer of electric evaporators.
Syrup With a Smile
Maple sugar producers in the United States are busiest in late winter or early spring, when nearly 2 million gallons of syrup are produced.
Sap is collected from spouts augered into the heartwood of four types of budding maple trees. Producers boil the sap down and refine it into syrup or cook it down even more to waxy amber granules used to make candies.
For generations, the images of smoke rising from the chimneys of flagstone-trimmed sugar houses and steam billowing from wood-fired evaporators has signaled springtime in New England and in the Great Lakes woodlands. And while hobbyists and craft producers still primarily use wood to fuel boiling fires, diesel and propane are popular with larger commercial operations.
When Wright learned that family-operated Maple Sugar Mountain, LLC, was running a new electric evaporator during its 2015 sugaring season, it piqued his interest.
“The owners are members of the co-op, so I arranged to visit their sugar house to take a look,” Wright says. “There was no smoke and very little steam, but they were making syrup with a smile.”
David Mann, Roger Mann Jr., and their brother-in-law, Bill Baker, launched the company in 2012. With 15,000 taps on maple trees in and around Belvidere, Vt., they sold sap for two years before deciding to process their own.
“Sugaring has evolved from horses, buckets, gathering, storage, and boiling,” David Mann says. “Today, sugaring involves tubing, vacuum releasers, multiple storage tanks, reverse-osmosis systems, piping, and processing.”
With a relatively short annual production window, they looked for ways to avoid the tedious tasks of cutting a season’s worth of wood or pre-buying the propane or diesel they’d need each spring. While building their new sugar house, they learned that Dominion & Grimm, headquartered in Anjou, Quebec, Canada, was selling Ecovap brand electric evaporators.
“We liked that there was no steam stack or exhaust stack to cut through the roof,” David Mann says. “The cost to operate the electric evaporator was projected to be significantly lower because of the efficiency of the unit.”
Since their introduction in 2014, about 100 Ecovaps have been sold in Canada. The unit at Maple Sugar Mountain was the first up and running in the U.S.
“We sell two models,” says Benoit Pepin, whose family has owned the sugar industry equipment supplier since 1963. “The smaller Ecovap is for an 8,000-taps operation, and the biggest one is for 40,000 taps.”
Maple Sugar Mountain bought the larger unit hoping to increase production in time. During the 2015 season, energy use for Mann’s operation averaged 20.8 cents per gallon of syrup based on the co-op’s commercial and industrial rate of 17 cents per kWH. The machine produces about one gallon of hot syrup for each kilowatt-hour of electricity, and steam from the system is recycled to produce more heat.
“They probably would have to burn between one-third and onehalf gallon of fuel oil to produce one gallon of syrup,” VEC’s Wright says. Over that first season, the company avoided the cost of about 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel, priced at $2.78 a gallon in April 2015. And the quality of the syrup, Wright says, was outstanding.
Reduce Emissions, Save Money
When Wright ran the numbers back at VEC’s headquarters, he saw opportunities for the co-op to boost power sales at minimal cost during spring when member demand is relatively low. Currently, the six-to-eight- week sugaring season accounts for about 1 percent of the co-op’s total annual retail sales.
Wright also saw tremendous potential to meet the emissions goals the co-op faces beginning in 2017 under Vermont’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.
“The carbon offset from an equivalent propane or oil evaporator is roughly 30 tons of CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions,” he says. “This is the equivalent of about 80,000 highway miles driven or taking seven cars off the road.”
Wright’s visit to Maple Sugar Mountain led to talks between VEC and Dominion & Grimm. The coop is now promoting the company’s electric evaporators and offering to cover up to $6,000 of a member-producer’s electric service construction costs to help cover line extensions or other co-op-required upgrades.
“Our goal is to reduce carbon emissions and save our members money,” Wright says, adding that one maple-producing member has already committed to the change.
“We lead the nation in annual syrup production, and high-quality maple products are a hallmark of the Vermont brand,” says Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross. “Efficiency innovations and our proud tradition of best-in-class maple are why Vermont continues to be a leader in this industry.”