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How We Did It

How We Did It

How Middlebury Achieved Carbon Neutrality in 2016

In 2007, Middlebury set an ambitious goal: In nine years, trustees pledged, the institution would achieve carbon neutrality. In December 2016, Middlebury met its goal; in other words, Middlebury balanced the amount of carbon emissions it releases with reductions, efficiencies and an amount equivalent to the remainder by sequestration or offset.

The milestone came after years of student, faculty and staff research; trial and error; innovative partnerships and technological advancements; and a sustained commitment to meeting the challenges of climate change. What follows is an overview of the path Middlebury took to achieve carbon neutrality, an explanation of the methods used, and lessons learned as the institution looks to future sustainability endeavors.


Middlebury’s neutrality goal was achieved through four primary means: 

  • Conversion of its primary fuel source for heating, cooling and powering the campus from #6 oil to biomass gasification;
  • Partnership in three solar projects totaling 1.1 megawatts and retirement of the associated renewable energy credits;
  • Efficiency and conservation projects which reduced demand for electricity by 4.5 million kWh and 15-20 percent reduction in demand;
  • And the conservation of 2,100 acres of forest land it owned through an easement given to the Vermont Land Trust with minimal forest harvest allowed under very strict conditions in perpetuity.

The History: Middlebury’s Path to Carbon Neutrality

When Middlebury committed to achieving carbon neutrality, the institution set off on a journey without a roadmap. At the time, and as is the case today, no federal or state regulations existed requiring the tracking or reduction of carbon emissions from sources such as heating plants. Yet students, faculty, staff, and trustees wanted to take an active role in addressing the challenges of climate change, and recognized that significantly reducing or eliminating Middlebury’s carbon footprint would be a meaningful step forward.

The institution’s interest in carbon neutrality dates back to 2000, when Environmental Affairs and the Environmental Studies program honed in on the goal during a strategic planning retreat. At the time, Middlebury was heated entirely by No. 6 fuel oil. The institution convened a working group within its Environmental Council to explore methods for carbon reduction, who subsequently collaborated with a January Term class of faculty, staff, and students to chart steps forward. In 2004, this group brought a carbon reduction goal to the Board of Trustees, which agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, consistent with the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2006, trustees approved a plan to construct a new biomass gasification plant — representing a major overhaul of the heating plant that would dramatically cut No. 6 fuel oil use. This marked a major leap forward, and soon students began wondering if the 2004 goal could be improved upon. In 2006, students lobbied the board of trustees to replace the carbon reduction goals with a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality instead. After significant dialogue and research the Trustees resolved to do so in the spring of 2007.

Immediately following the resolution, Middlebury also signed onto the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, now known as the Carbon Commitment. It was among the first of 697 higher education institutions (from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, representing a student population of over 5.6 million) to make public commitments to address climate change by reducing their carbon footprints.

Accounting for Carbon Neutrality

Achieving carbon neutrality requires a thorough accounting of the institution’s carbon footprint and emissions. Middlebury undertakes an annual greenhouse gas inventory to measure carbon emissions from its main campus in Middlebury and its nearby Bread Loaf campus and Snow Bowl ski area. The inventory is based on guidance by the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol and the EPA Climate Leaders. Baseline emissions in 2007 were 30,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents covering emissions from heating/cooling the campus, college owned vehicles, purchased electricity, business travel, and waste to landfill.

Biomass at Middlebury                         

The first major step toward carbon neutrality came with the construction of an innovative biomass gasification facility, one of the first of its kind in the country. The plant was completed in late 2008, at which time Middlebury began the switch from No. 6 fuel oil to locally sourced wood chips. In the years since, use of fuel oil at Middlebury dropped from about 2.1 million gallons a year to 600,000 gallons in 2015 and 185,000 gallons in 2016 (when natural gas became available in Middlebury).

Under the accounting standards for carbon mentioned above, carbon emissions from biomass gasification are counted “when the trees are cut, not when they are burned. If, at the national level, biomass harvests exceed growth and regeneration, the resultant depletion of national biomass stocks result in a net “emission” (flux to the atmosphere).” [Greenhouse Gas Protocol FAQ’s – see reference below]

Before deciding to switch to biomass, Middlebury commissioned studies by Vermont Family Forests and the Biomass Energy Resource Center to assess the capacity of local forests to provide biomass; these reports discovered significant net growth and availability. A subsequent 2013 study of the forests within 75 miles of the main campus — representing the radius from which Middlebury sources its wood — found that the 21,000 tons of biomass burned that year represented 1 percent of the net growth of those forests. It does matter where one draws the boundary within which forest growth is measured and it varies accordingly. At the national level, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2016 State of the Worlds Forests report, there were net gains in forest coverage in the US and North America over the previous decade as well.

Assessing the Carbon Neutrality of Biomass

While it is difficult to determine definitively how long it takes for carbon emitted by specific biomass energy sources to be reabsorbed into particular forests, there is a fundamental difference in using biomass instead of fossil fuels; biomass carbon cycles much more rapidly through forests and other vegetation than geologically extracted carbon which has been in below-ground storage, and for the millions of years that it will take to go back into those stores most of the fossil amount extracted remains in the atmosphere.

While Middlebury, and others who use biomass, count it as carbon neutral, we recognize that it is not a silver bullet solution. In regions with abundant forests that are managed well, it is a carbon better solution. Other benefits come as well. Middlebury has saved between $1 to $2 million in fuel costs annually (varies with the price of oil vs. wood), has shifted spending from global oil to the local wood products economy putting over a million new dollars a year into the pockets of Vermonters and Adirondackers, and now uses a renewable and locally sourced fuel to heat most of the campus and co-generate 15-20 percent of its electricity.

Solar Partnerships at Middlebury

During the neutrality effort, Middlebury also partnered with three local solar entrepreneurs by agreeing to lease their solar facilities which together have a capacity of 1.1 megawatts of power. These facilities generate about 8 percent of the electricity used by the campus and the renewable energy credits (RECs) associated with these projects have been permanently retired by the institution so it can claim this renewable energy as its own rather than sell them on an out-of-state market for RECs.

Gains in Energy Efficiency

In addition to bringing on new forms of energy generation — biomass and solar — Middlebury made significant gains in improving its energy efficiency. Since 2000 the institution has spent $1.5 million on energy efficiency on campus with technical and financial support from Efficiency Vermont, Vermont’s conservation and efficiency organization. The improvements reduced electricity use by 4.5 million kilowatt hours and now saves Middlebury about $636,000 annually.

Conservation and Sequestration

The last major step taken by Middlebury to achieve carbon neutrality was its permanent conservation of 2,100 acres of forest land around its Bread Loaf campus. In the conservation easement that was donated to the Vermont Land Trust to permanently protect the forest lands, Middlebury included a provision that would allow it to work with an independent third party to quantify the carbon storage and sequestration occurring on these lands (and 900 other acres the institution owns) and apply for carbon credits.

The permanent easement ensures that these forest lands will continue to provide the natural and ecological benefits they afford, including capture and storage of carbon. Prior to this permanent protection, no legal assurance existed on the books that the use or management of these lands would not change.

Middlebury has hired a company to oversee two independent assessments of carbon storage and sequestration which reconciled and formed the basis for an application to the American Carbon Registry for credits. The first credits are issued for previous year's carbon sequestration. After they are issued, Middlebury buys back the number of credits needed to offset carbon emissions for the year and permanently retire them. The remainder are sold. Based on initial modeling of these lands using data from two prior forest assessments, Middlebury is confident that there will be sufficient credits to achieve carbon neutrality, cover project costs and gain income.

Challenges Along the Way

The path to carbon neutrality wasn’t without road blocks or challenges. The biomass system with its many moving parts and complex control system took the plant operators a year to master and develop protocols for optimizing its performance. There was a fire along the way that destroyed a pollution control system. The plant operators devised and installed a new system to prevent such an occurrence and for which the college has received a patent. 

Middlebury explored the feasibility of growing its own biomass through a collaboration with the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNYESF). SUNYESF established a 10-acre research plot of numerous varieties of willow shrubs on land owned by Middlebury. After four years of growth they were harvested with help from local farmers and test burned in the biomass facility for four days. The conclusion was that four days was not enough burn time to adjust the gasification process to meet our air quality permit requirements. And because the gasification system is the primary source of heat and power for the campus it wasn’t prudent to further explore growing biomass on marginal agricultural lands to feed the gasifier. SUNYESF continued its research on the willows and we have used them for our composting operation on campus and as a source of material for local streambank restoration efforts.

Looking to the Future

While Middlebury celebrates these achievements and appreciates what it accomplished, it continues to explore how to better address the climate challenges we face. It remains committed to continuing to test and evaluate the carbon neutrality and environmental standards of its biomass program. Facilities staff continue to look for places to improve efficiency on campus. Achieving carbon neutrality wasn't an endpoint, but rather a milestone in a continuing and evolving effort to seek new technologies and advancements, monitor and improve systems, and create educational opportunities and continually set new sustainability goals moving forward.

Middlebury continues to collaborate with a local project to produce renewable natural gas from a manure digester on a nearby dairy farm which it has been working with over the past several years to help come to fruition. The institution continues to explore: additional efficiency and conservation measures and greater participation by the Middlebury community; the feasibility of a microgrid and energy storage pilot project; more renewable energy sources; and other feasible alternatives the future may bring. It is now discussing how to set a new and ambitious goal and timeline for achieving carbon negativity along with a significant increase in its’ use of renewable energy.

Achieving carbon neutrality has involved many people over 10 years and represented a collective effort that was challenging and rewarding on many fronts. It galvanized the campus community and elicited the creativity and commitment of many, including its partners. It created opportunities for faculty and student research, much of which has been influential in the decisions and choices made, and not made, along the way.

The process was well documented and provides lessons for others. Along the way, the institution refined its criteria for thinking about future projects and improvements:

• What impact would a proposed project have on net carbon emissions?

• Is it technologically feasible and what are the risks and rewards? Has it been tried elsewhere?

• What are the social implications?

• Would a project have a net benefit when all is taken into account?

• Does it create new opportunities for enhancing the educational mission of the College?

More can be done. While Middlebury achieved net carbon neutrality, it still has carbon emissions it needs to reduce or eliminate. That first milestone provided a sound starting point toward the next steps.

Additional Reading

Timeline: Middlebury Path to Carbon Neutrality

Carbon Neutrality at Middlebury College: A Compilation of Potential Objectives and Strategies to Minimize Campus Climate Impact – Prepared for the Environmental Council for the Carbon Reduction Initiative at Middlebury College February 9, 2003 updated June 1, 2003. Faculty and Students of J-Term Class January, 2003.

Middlebury Trustees Resolution to Achieve Carbon Neutrality. May 2007.

Middlebury Climate Action Plan: Winning the Race Together. Middlebury MiddShift Implementation Working Group. August 2008.

Greenhouse Gas Protocol, Frequently Asked Questions: Why are emissions from the burning of biomass not included in Scope 1, 2 or 3? How should I report them?

Results of Initial Testing of Feasibility of Willow as Biomass at Middlebury

Discussion Paper: Comparative Life Cycle Assessments: Carbon Neutrality and Wood Biomass Energy by Roger Sedjo, Resources for the Future, April 2013, RFF DP 13-11.

Summary of Carbon Emission Impacts of Modern Wood Heating in Northeastern US. Biomass Energy Resource. February, 2016.

Improved Forest Management Methodology for Quantifying GHG Removals and Emission Reductions through Increased Forest Carbon Sequestration on Non-Federal U.S. Forestlands. Developed by Columbia Carbon LLC, a subsidiary of CE2 Carbon Capital in partnership with L&C Carbon LLC, based on the approved ACR IFM methodology for U.S. timberlands developed by Finite Carbon Corporation. December, 2016

State of the World's Forests 2016. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Forest Carbon. Vermont Dept. Forests, Parks & Recreation. November 2016