Carbon Neutrality Countdown

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Carbon Neutrality Countdown

August 7, 2013

Jack Byrne, Director of Sustainability Integration

As 2016 nears, how much progress has Middlebury made toward its goal of carbon neutrality?

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Let’s start with the basics. In 2007, following an outpouring of student support and the approval of a $12 million biomass gasification system the year before, the College’s trustees set a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2016. Middlebury’s 2007 carbon emissions were about 30,000 metric tons, an inventory that included emissions from sources that the College owned or controlled more than 50 percent of, including Bread Loaf and the Snow Bowl. The five major sources were heating and cooling, College-related travel, fleet vehicles, purchased electricity, and landfill waste (see table for other sources).

Since 2009, the biomass system has reduced the College’s carbon emissions by nearly 40 percent and the use of #6 fuel oil by one-half, or about a million gallons per year. On average, over the past four years, this has saved the College well over $1 million in fuel costs. Some 20,000 tons of woodchips, harvested within 75 miles of campus, are used annually in lieu of that oil. According to the latest Forest Inventory Analysis by the U.S. Forest Service, that amount represents less than 1 percent of the area’s net forest growth (growth minus removals/harvest).

Middlebury also collects information about where each load of chips was harvested and milled. Eventually, the College plans to study the standards and certifications used by those companies supplying its biomass in order to address any issues regarding sustainable-harvesting practices.

How will Middlebury eliminate the remaining 60 percent of the College’s carbon footprint? The next big step will likely be replacing fuel oil used for heating and cooling with biomethane, which is produced by the biodigestion of cow manure; the gas will be captured on a nearby farm and piped to the College. Middlebury has signed a contract with the company that is building the farm’s digester to purchase the biomethane equivalent of 640,000 gallons of fuel oil. This commitment, in turn, has enabled the start-up to more readily obtain grants, loans, and investments.

Biomethane is carbon neutral since the origin of the gas is the grass eaten by the cows. (Grass absorbs carbon dioxide to grow, so when manure is converted to biomethane and burned, it adds no new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.) And the College will receive additional carbon-reduction credits for converting methane to carbon dioxide, as methane traps 20 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The biomethane company anticipates delivering the College’s first gas shipment in the spring of 2014.

Once biomethane is in place, Middlebury will have reduced its carbon emissions by nearly 90 percent. To achieve “carbon zero,” the College is researching new land-management strategies that would sequester more carbon in the soil, offsetting the remaining carbon footprint. However, this is a long-term project, and other offset solutions may be necessary in the interim.  

Middlebury continues to focus on conservation and efficiency initiatives to reduce the amount of energy used to heat and power the campus. In the last 10 years, the College invested $1.2 million in efficiency projects, which reduced annual electricity usage by 3.4 million kilowatt-hours and the electric bill by $455,000. As a result, the College’s electricity consumption dropped 9 percent over that same period.  

A solar farm, installed in 2012, produced 243,000 kilowatt-hours in its first year—more electricity than is used annually in Forest Residential Hall! At the same time, the photovoltaic panels on the Franklin Environmental Center and other buildings produced 12 percent of the power used in those buildings, and two solar-hot-water systems have been installed on student housing.

Student, faculty, and staff engagement is critical to the carbon neutrality effort, and a series of on-campus campaigns continues to raise awareness and encourage individual action (see article about the Be Bright energy literacy campaign that was piloted this spring).

Finally, the Environmental Council recently called on the College to start looking beyond 2016 and to envision and plan for the “next big thing.” Environmental Affairs is taking the challenge to heart and beginning to imagine what Middlebury—and the world—might look like in three years’ time and beyond. What comes after “carbon zero”? Your thoughts and ideas are welcome as we journey on!