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Striving for Climate Neutrality, Middlebury College Fires Up Its Biomass Plant

biomass plant
The biomass plant at Middlebury College will supply a significant chunk of the college’s power.. (Photo courtesy Middlebury College)

Middlebury College’s $11-million biomass plant was fired up this week. The plant will burn around 20,000 tons of wood chips each year, replacing one million gallons of fuel oil, or half the college’s consumption. The plant, which will provide both electricity and steam for heat, will reduce the college’s annual carbon emissions by 12,500 tons; wood ashes from the plant, which are high in nutrients like potassium and calcium, will go to a fertilizer company. The whole project will pay for itself in 11 years.

College officials put the plant in a central location on the campus to symbolize the college’s quest for climate neutrality by 2016. They say it has generated interest from students and visitors and will be used as an educational opportunity for the campus.

Now, we should note our own history with this project: The Chronicle has run its share of controversial articles, but sustainability advocates seem to have a long memory for a short article about Middlebury’s biomass plant that appeared in 2006. In that article, a then-science reporter, Richard Monastersky, said that the plant might not lead to an overall reduction of carbon emissions, as advertised. “For the next few years, local sawmills will supply all of the wood chips, which would have most likely gone to a paper producer or to a large biomass plant run by an electric utility” — the carbon equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Rich also raised questions about the sustainability of biomass in the Northeast, given the demand for wood chips. Sustainability advocates and defenders of Middlebury — which was at least trying to do something right and good, more than a lot of higher-education institutions — have had … er, chips on their shoulders ever since.

Today, Jack Byrne, Middlebury’s sustainability director, says that the college’s wood chips would not otherwise go to another power-generating source. However, the college is mindful of the future demand for wood-chip fuel. It has been experimenting with growing willows on about 10 acres; the college may expand that production to 1,200 acres someday to supply some portion of the wood needed for the biomass plant.

The journey from wood chip to heat and electricity is a fairly complicated process. Almost everything you would ever want to know about that is detailed in the video below.

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