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Greening Middlebury College fuel

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By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College hopes to stimulate the local forest products economy when it begins buying woodchips instead of oil for a new $11 million, biomass-fueled power plant. In addition, the plant, which college trustees signed off on at a meeting late last month, will cut the college’s greenhouse gas emissions by 12,500 metric tons a year  — a step that will be welcomed by a student-led effort to zero-out Middlebury College’s impact on global warming.

By relying on woodchips, a by-product of the lumbering business already established in Addison County, the college will support local industry while weaning itself off the global oil supply, officials said.

“The biomass plant exemplifies the college’s longstanding commitment to the environment not only as an academic subject, but also as an integral part of the institution’s operations,” said Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz. “It reflects the significance we place on the local economy as well.”

Local civic leaders seem to be almost as enthusiastic about the new power plant as their opposite numbers at the college.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this project is the development of local fuel sources,” said John Tenny, chairman of the Middlebury Board of Selectmen. “If the college can purchase their fuel locally, the money will stay in this area.”

Since the plant will be connected to the college’s existing boiler system, it won’t be feasible for the town to piggyback on the project. But Middlebury College’s environmental council hopes to involve the town, and indeed the region, by developing a reliable woodchip resource from within a 50-mile radius. According to Assistant Treasurer Tom Corbin, during the first three to five years the plant is online, this could be difficult. In the winter, the Addison County Courthouse and a few public schools use local woodchips from companies like A. Johnson Lumber for their own wood-chip-fired boilers. That will leave little of the natural resource left to for the college, which expects to burn 20,000-21,000 tons a year.

Corbin anticipates, however, that as more people look to biomass fuel in the future, creating what is simply a by-product today will become a business in itself, and the environmental council will certainly meet its goal. In the meantime, the college has had the most success securing a wood-chip broker in Canada who sources in Vermont.

Once it finds consistent suppliers, the college doesn’t plan to stop there. Tenny said the next step might be the development of a fuel forest, 1,200 acres of a fast-growth tree like willow that can be harvested for almost half the woodchips the biomass plant will require. Such an endeavor would create jobs locally and even serve as an educational resource for the community.

College officials anticipate that this plant will provide demonstration and learning opportunities regarding the design, construction and operation of biomass heat and power technologies for other colleges, municipalities, state government, hospitals, dairy and food processors, and other small to medium enterprises.

GLOBAL WARMING FIGHT

Although Tenny didn’t foresee a municipal wood-chip burning counterpart to the college’s power plant, he did welcome the reduction of greenhouse gases, which meshes with the town’s own goals.

“The college is headed in a direction that speaks to global warming concerns, which is something we are committed to as a town,” Tenny said. 

The town of Middlebury has taken small but important steps toward its own goal of carbon reduction. The streetlights on Court Street and in the downtown area were recently replaced with highly efficient lamps, creating a better aesthetic while reducing electricity use. In addition, heating systems in town buildings have been revamped to conserve more energy.

In addition, the selectboard this month agreed to apply for a grant that would look into the feasibility of a plan, proposed by Middlebury physician Anders Holm, to place a water turbine at Otter Creek Falls to produce enough energy to light up 500 homes.

For its part, the college said the biomass plant will cut the its use of No. 6 fuel oil in half, from about 2 million gallons to 1 million gallons a year. In addition to that direct fuel savings, officials said that use of the plant will also make it unnecessary to pay for the transportation by ship and truck of that one million gallons of oil a year from thousands of miles away to Middlebury. As a result, there will be a reduction of carbon emissions produced in the fuel delivery process, as well.

When construction of the biomass plant gets under way in the spring of 2007, the college will be in the fifth year of a Carbon Reduction Initiative. Launched in 2002, the goal of the initiative as stated by the college’s environmental council is to reduce institutional carbon levels by 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. On Oct. 5, students and faculty took their commitment to fighting global warming one step further when they presented the trustees with a Carbon Neutrality Initiative, a plan to completely eliminate the college’s carbon footprint by 2016.

Converting to biomass fuel “is the single most important factor in achieving carbon neutrality,” said Nan Jenks-Jay, director of environmental affairs at Middlebury College.

The environmental council, she said, found they could change out every light bulb, convert all the campus transportation to bio-diesel fuel, urge students and faculty to be more efficient in their energy use, and it would still be almost impossible to meet their goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions. It is the burning of fossil fuels that makes the difference.

Middlebury College students, the driving force behind the carbon neutrality effort, applaud their administrators’ investment but urge them not to stop researching solutions. Jamie Henn, a senior and co-founder of Sunday Night Group, the student collective most dedicated and thorough in advocating for carbon neutrality, considers the biomass plant a great first step, but certainly no conclusion to the neutrality challenge.

“We need not just to be doing well, but doing all that we can and being the best at it,” he said. In addition to the plant, the college could focus on more creative solutions, introduce more non-fossil-fuel-burning options like wind power, solar panels or even geothermal energy. And for those energy expenditures the college simply can’t reduce, the administration can purchase carbon offsets, which zero out emissions in one place by planting trees or engaging in an energy conservation activity in another.

Henn said he believes the plant will create an important dialogue between town and college about possible energy alternatives.

To finance the facility, which is due to begin operation in the fall of 2008, the college will secure loans and has also applied for state grants.

College officials said the biomass plant will be constructed near the site of the college’s current power facility off South Main Street. Commuters through town will feel a slight increase in traffic when three trucks carrying woodchips, compared to one carrying fuel oil, make their daily deliveries to the plant. But town and college officials agree, it’s a small price to pay for a noble cause. 

“We’re always looking to improve what we contribute to the future sustainability of the world,” Jenks-Jay said, “whether that’s in the classroom, or the boardroom, or the boiler room.”

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