Middlebury, Vt. - It might come as a surprise to find Middlebury College testifying at a Senate hearing on green jobs and renewable energy policy-what's a liberal arts college doing among power utilities, energy efficiency organizations, and a biomass research center? But Middlebury's commitment to sustainability and the recent addition of a biomass gasification heating facility has drawn attention from many of Vermont's elected officials looking to address the energy and climate crisis.
Middlebury has a long history of supporting the local economy and working with the community, whether it's local wood in new campus buildings or helping the town finance a new bridge over Otter Creek. Through the purchase of woodchips, which replaces 1 million gallons of #6 fuel oil, the biomass plant contributes $800,000 to the local economy and the willow shrub test plot could offer local farmers the opportunity to grow willows as a renewable energy crop. Additionally, the college is working with the town of Middlebury and the Porter Hospital to create a renewable energy district. The first phase of the project will study the capacity of the land to ecologically produce biomass as well as determine optimal biomass heating and power systems for each location. Secondly, it would create a biomass purchasing cooperative and establish a revolving loan fund using cost savings from one renewable energy project as capital for another.
Vermont's Congressional representatives have taken notice. In August, Jack Byrne, director of the sustainability integration office at Middlebury College, was asked to attend multiple meetings around the state related to biomass, woodchips, and renewable energy. In addition to participating in the Senate field hearing for the subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy, Byrne attended meetings with staff from Sen. Leahy's office, Congressman Welch, and Sen. Sanders. These meetings brought together others with district biomass plans in Vermont and key constituents involved with the future of biomass as well as other renewable energy sources.
Last June, Sen. Sanders visited Middlebury's biomass gasification plant and willow shrub test site. Impressed with Middlebury's approach, he invited Byrne to participate in a field hearing for the Senate subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy in Montpelier last month. Sen. Sanders, who chairs the subcommittee, brought together energy leaders from across the state to discuss renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green jobs in Vermont. Byrne joined representatives from Green Mountain Power, Efficiency Vermont, the Biomass Energy Resource Center, Vermont Department of Public Service, GroSolar, EarthTurbines, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Vermont Technical College.
"Vermont is often singled out as being different in how it responds to big issues like economic revitalization" said Byrne. "The hearing made it apparent that there is a significant opportunity being created by Middlebury College and the other organizations and businesses represented on the panel in forging a stronger, greener economy that can benefit everyday Vermonters."
In his opening remarks, Sen. Sanders, who serves on both the Energy Committee and the Environmental and Public Works Committee, stated that "We are in the middle of a revolution. Cutting emissions, reducing carbon, and fighting global warming should be undertaken with the same sense of urgency and national purpose as if we were fighting a war.
"Vermont is leading the way and one positive aspect of the revolution is that it has the potential to create millions of good paying jobs across the country as we cut carbon, save money, and combat global warming."
At Middlebury, heating and cooling the campus is no longer as easy as it used to be. Woodchips are more complicated than fuel oil; the supply chain is less developed, although certainly much more local, and woodchips have to fit certain criteria- not too dry, not too wet, and not too big. Add to this the complexity of ecology and the economy, and becoming carbon neutral can seem pretty daunting. Figuring out how to do this right is a big challenge, but the people working on these issues at Middlebury understand the importance of partnerships that cross traditional boundaries, even when that means showing up in unexpected places.