Middlebury’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2016 has kept us searching, questioning and acting to take a leadership role in efforts to address climate change. With the switch to biomass as a fuel source in 2009 we cut our carbon emissions by nearly 40% from 2007 when the Trustees challenged the College community to achieve carbon neutrality. We have reduced our dependence on foreign oil by one million gallons annually, saving the College $800,000 a year in fuel costs, and putting $800,000 of new money into the local forestry economy. The biomass project is also providing a rich source of learning for students to probe what it means to be carbon neutral from a broader, life cycle perspective and how the College should be approaching it.
We are pursuing two other carbon reduction initiatives to address the remaining 60% of the College’s carbon emissions. First, we have signed a contract to purchase biomethane produced by digestion of cow manure on area dairy farms. The biomethane would replace the remaining million gallons of fuel oil we are burning. This contract is contingent upon the biomethane digester entrepreneur finding the capital to build the digesters and on the College raising the funds needed to put the infrastructure in place to handle the biomethane gas, which would be delivered to the College by tube truck and piped to the central heating and power plant to be burned in our oil boilers.
Converting manure to biomethane and burning it reduces the global warming effect of the manure by 21 times. The methane, which has more heat trapping ability than CO2 in the atmosphere, would otherwise have been emitted from the manure as a gas while stored in lagoons, or when applied to the soil as fertilizer. Burning the biomethane to produce heat and electricity for the campus would not only reduce net carbon emissions, but local farmers would also benefit by being paid for their cow manure. They would also receive bedding for their animals and the digested solids to be used as fertilizer as byproducts of the digestion process. At the same time the College would be shifting even more of its energy dollars into the local agriculture economy.
Second, we are actively researching the potential use of marginal agricultural lands to produce biomass and how we might do so in ways that improve the ecological health of the land and increase the sequestration of carbon in the soils. We recently harvested and conducted a test burn of 120 tons of willow shrubs from a six-acre test plot planted in Fall 2007, which has been studied intensively by researchers from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. We are using the results of the study and the test burn to plan a more extensive test of willows in the biomass plant this Fall. In addition, a comprehensive study of forest and farm lands owned by the College and the Town of Middlebury was conducted by Applied Ecological Services (AES) to assess the potential for growing biomass with a more ecological approach using polycultures of different species of shrubby and grassy species. AES also collected hundreds of soil samples to determine how much more carbon could potentially be stored using more ecological management practices. The report is available at: files.me.com/jbyrne24/68h49u
Between these two projects the College would likely achieve its goal of carbon neutrality. Stay tuned for more as we pursue our 2016 goal.