MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - Middlebury College Director of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay announced today that the college will proceed with its plan to construct a biomass plant, which will cut the college’s greenhouse gas emissions by almost 12,500 metric tons annually with power generated from wood chips rather than fuel oil. Her announcement followed a meeting of the Middlebury board of trustees, where the board approved the recommendation by administrators to build the facility. 

The estimated cost of the project is $11 million. To finance the facility, the college will secure loans and has also applied for state grants. The plant will be located near the site of the college’s current power facility off South Main Street (Route 30). Work on the project will start in the spring of 2007 and the plant will begin operation in the fall of 2008.

Middlebury’s primary objective for the biomass facility is to provide a sustainable, local and renewable fuel source for heating, cooling and electricity for the campus. According to Jenks-Jay, the college’s long-range goal is to obtain wood chips harvested in an environmentally friendly manner from local sources. “Our hope is that the college’s entry into biomass will greatly stimulate the growth of the local, sustainable wood chip market and bioenergy economy in Addison County and Vermont,” she said. The college estimates that it will require 20,000 to 21,000 tons of chips per year. 

Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz said, “Middlebury has taken a national leadership role on the issue of carbon reduction among higher education institutions, and has a history of promoting sustainable economic development in Vermont. 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. It reflects the significance we place on the local economy as well.”  

The biomass plant will cut the college’s use of number six fuel oil in half, from about two million gallons to one million gallons a year. Increasing the diversity of Middlebury’s energy sources, the facility will leave the college less dependent on the global oil supply and subject to the fluctuating price of oil. Use of the plant will also make it unnecessary to pay for the transportation by ship and truck of one million gallons of oil a year from thousands of miles away to Middlebury. There will be a reduction of carbon emissions produced in the fuel delivery process as well. Most of the money previously spent on the oil and its transport will continue to be spent on energy costs, but now these dollars will remain in Vermont and New England.

Once the new biomass plant is in operation, the facility will cut Middlebury’s carbon emissions by almost 12,500 metric tons a year. “The college has long been concerned about its carbon footprint and its effect on global warming,” said Jenks-Jay, who serves as a member of the Carbon Reduction Initiative - a group of Middlebury College students, faculty, staff and senior administrators - which has worked for several years on the biomass project as well as other initiatives.

College officials anticipate that this plant will also 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.

“Our search for suppliers of wood chips who use environmental principles and practices is another indication of our desire to work together with the greater community in Vermont, the Northeast and beyond to create a greener future,” said Jenks-Jay.

She made the announcement at “Focus the Nation,” a one-day conference on climate change initiatives at colleges and universities across the country that took place at Middlebury on Sept. 30. 

Middlebury College Biomass Plant:
Frequently Asked Questions

When will the biomass plant be built and how much will it cost?

Construction on the project began in July 2007 and concluded in December 2008. The total cost is $12 million. Chiptech, Inc. of Bristol and Williston, Vt., furnished the gasification system.

What is biomass?

Biomass is fuel derived from plants, such as trees, grass, soybeans and corn. Middlebury College uses wood chips in its biomass plant.

What are the general advantages of using biomass?

It is renewable - the fuel can be replaced by growing more of it.

It can be produced domestically and therefore diminishes dependence on foreign fuel sources.

It comes from plants that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they grow, and therefore no additional climate-warming carbon dioxide is released when plants are grown, burned and then replaced with new plantings. Middlebury College is seeking wood chip producers who maintain the long-term health and productivity of the forests with sustainable forestry methods to assure that the wood it burns is replaced over time by new trees.

Doesn’t burning wood cause pollution?

The biomass plant uses a gasification process, which turns wood into a form of gas which is burned to heat the boiler. Particulates from the burning process are captured by a filter. Overall the emissions produced by the biomass plant are not greater than those that result from Number 6 fuel oil. Burning wood will actually produce significantly less emission of sulfur compounds, which contribute to acid rain.

What are the potential advantages to Middlebury College using biomass?

. reduces the college’s consumption of Number 6 fuel oil for heating and cooling by about 1.1 million gallons per year by replacing it with 20,000 tons of wood chips which are a renewable fuel

. reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into Vermont’s air by nearly 12,500 tons per year

. generates approximately 2 to 2.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity on the college campus from a renewable energy source

. stimulates further development of the renewable energy and agroforestry sectors of the Vermont economy

. potentially creates additional employment and economic benefits in Addison County and Vermont

. provides valuable demonstration and learning opportunities about the design, construction and operation of technologies for biomass gasification heat and power for other colleges, municipalities, state government, hospitals, dairy and food processors, and other small to medium enterprises.

Does Middlebury College have plans to produce its own biomass?

The college, in collaboration with the SUNY School of Forestry, is conducting an experiment with a 10-acre test plot of willow shrubs to explore their feasibility as biomass. Willow shrubs are a promising form of fuel that could be produced by local suppliers. Should the pilot project have positive results, willows could provide a substantial portion of the fuel needed for the biomass plant in seven or more years from now. The college will pursue the possibility of contracting with local farmers to produce larger quantities of willows if the pilot project demonstrates that this option is feasible.

Will biomass be the college’s only fuel source once the plant is in operation?

No. Middlebury will continue to burn fuel oil in addition to wood to provide adequate heating and cooling to the campus.

What percent of the college’s carbon footprint will the biomass plant be able to reduce?

The college projects that its carbon emissions will be reduced by about 12,500 tons, which represent an estimated 40 percent of the college’s 2006 carbon emissions.

How is the 12,500 tons of CO2 calculated?

The 12,500 tons of carbon dioxide is calculated by estimating the amount of Number 6 fuel oil that will not be burned if the college were to use 20,000 tons of woodchips per year. That amount equates to about 1.078 million gallons. There are 0.01167 tons of CO2 equivalents per gallon of Number 6 fuel oil. The amount of CO2 equivalents in 1,078,000 gallons of burned fuel oil equates to 12,500 tons.

Does the college have a goal for reducing its carbon emissions?

Yes. In May 2007 the Middlebury College board of trustees approved a plan to become a carbon neutral institution by 2016. The press release on this commitment is available here.