BERC’s roots can be traced to the early 1990s, when Scudder Parker left the Vermont state legislature to lead the Vermont Department of Public Service’s (DPS's) new Energy Efficiency Division. There he met Norm Hudson, a forester with the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, who envisioned a future in which Vermont would run on energy from its own wood resources.
Parker and Hudson forged a relationship between the two state departments to pursue that vision. “We began to help schools convert to biomass,” recalls Parker, “but we quickly encountered the issues that come with a new energy source. There weren’t clear answers to questions of cost, supply, handling, technology, or quality.”
To find the answers, DPS came to depend on an independent contractor named Tim Maker, who had been working as a project manager for Vermont schools and others who were putting in woodchip heating systems. Tapping into Maker’s expertise, DPS developed the capacity to approach schools, institutions, and industries to analyze the cost effectiveness of a variety of wood energy options. According to Parker, they started to believe that their efforts to promote wood energy and initiate projects might have the potential to bring the benefits of biomass across the Northern Forest region—and perhaps the nation.
The school wood heating initiative, which later became known as Vermont Fuels For Schools, was gaining momentum, but the federal funding for promoting community-level biomass was evaporating. In an unusual move, DPS adopted an idea proposed by Federal Grants Manager Lois Jackson of spinning the program off as an independent nonprofit capable of generating its own revenue. “We realized that it was likely to perish if it remained in government,” says Parker, “while as a nonprofit, it might flourish.”
With some leftover grant money and a champion in Washington in Senator Patrick Leahy, the Biomass Energy Resource Center was launched in 2001. Maker, the go-to contractor, was hired as its first executive director. He worked alongside BERC Board President Steven Allenby, a past vice president at Central Vermont Public Service. “Steve has clarified the board’s role as setting policy for the organization,” says Maker. “He led us through an important strategic planning process and retreat, where we focused and reframed our mission.”
Sustained by US Department of Energy funding, the Vermont Fuels For Schools program continued to grow, with BERC serving as the “glue” binding together four partners—the Vermont Superintendents’ Association and the Departments of Education, Public Service, and Forests, Parks and Recreation. “We formalized the complex network of relationships that deliver wood heating systems to schools,” explains Maker. “It can be challenging to bring state agencies together, but now we have some tangible products and all of the partners understand what we’re doing.”
Those tangible products include an introductory packet given to all schools considering a woody biomass system. Once a bond vote passes and a school moves forward, BERC provides technical support to architects and engineers. “BERC is of great educational value to those who haven’t done this kind of work before,” says David Epstein, the architect who designed the new Mount Anthony Union Middle School, with BERC serving as wood system project manager. “Then we can take that experience and run with it.”
Epstein’s firm has since had two more biomass projects for which it did not need BERC’s help. Parker says that is precisely the result that BERC desires. “We want to provide firms with capacity,” he explains, “so our ideas need to be practical, deliverable, and replicable.”
Using its on-the-ground experience from projects like Mount Anthony as a foundation, BERC shifted its primary role from direct implementation to strategic coordination. In January 2007, BERC convened more than 100 school officials and industry representatives at the state’s annual school biomass conference. At the time, 14 Vermont schools were in the planning stages of building wood heating systems that year alone; with the increased demand comes a number of questions, and BERC worked to find the answers. “There’s a concern that there are only one or two vendors supplying the boilers here, so we are conducting a nationwide survey of vendors to identify and attract new qualified players that have not yet done business in Vermont,” says Maker.
In May of 2007, Founding Executive Director Tim Maker assumed the role of senior program director as Christopher Recchia came on board as the new executive director of the organization. Recchia's background included more than 20 years of experience as an environmental leader in the development of state and federal environmental policy and the implementation of programs managing air, land, and water resources.
“We are extremely fortunate to have Chris come on board as BERC moves into a new era of development and growth,” said Maker. “He has the knowledge and skill to build on the momentum we have established through his extensive experience in organizational and program development.”
During the nearly four years of Recchia's tenure as executive director, BERC expanded its focus to include a public policy program to build understanding among federal and state legislators and other decision makers in support of further development of efficient, sustainable biomass energy. It opened a Midwest office in Madison, Wisconsin and continued to build on its technical project work, biomass fuel supply services and market development, and the delivery of information and education about the responsible use of biomass as a local renewable energy resource for communities.
In early 2011, Recchia accepted an appointment by the new governor to become deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Brenda Quiroz Maday was selected to succeed him as executive director, bringing with her experience in the international clean energy market and expertise in business development.
In July of 2012, BERC was acquired by VEIC and relocated to the Burlington, Vermont office. VEIC continues to maintain BERC's particular focus on the use of woody biomass and other biomass fuels for thermal and electrical energy, and will leverage BERC’s national leadership in community-scale biomass district energy, institutional wood heating, and sustainable management of biomass resources.
“We aim to be the national experts not just on who’s doing biomass, but who is doing it right.”