Middlebury’s new biomass gasification plant will replace one million gallons of heating oil with wood chips annually.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. ? Middlebury College will celebrate the official launch of its new biomass gasification plant with a reception, tours, and lecture by world-renowned author, activist and Middlebury Scholar in Residence Bill McKibben on Thursday, Feb. 19, at McCullough Student Center, located on Old Chapel Road off College Street (Route 125).

The events begin with light refreshments from 4:30-5 p.m., followed by remarks from President Ronald D. Liebowitz and McKibben’s talk titled “What Gives a College Power: On Being a Learning, Teaching Community at a Moment of Change.” The evening will conclude with comments from Middlebury senior Billie Jayne Borden, who will introduce a video slideshow “tour” of the new facility, to be followed by walk-through tours. All events are free and open to the public.

Centrally located on campus, the $12 million plant is the college’s most significant milestone toward its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2016. The biomass boiler is expected to cut the college’s use of #6 heating oil in half - from 2 million gallons to one million gallons annually - and reduce the college’s carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, or 12,500 metric tons. The gasification system converts regionally grown wood chips into gas, which then burns to provide steam for heating, cooling, hot water and cooking throughout the campus. The plant also helps cogenerate 20 percent of the campus’s electricity.

“It is wonderful to see this project come to fruition,” said Liebowitz. “This facility is the result of the kind of collaboration among our students, faculty, staff and trustees that we strive to achieve on this campus. The biomass project has already provided many rich educational opportunities for students and research opportunities for faculty. It also allows us to redirect millions of dollars into our regional economy through the substitution of wood for oil. We still have a way to go to attain carbon neutrality, but Middlebury will continue its national leadership role in achieving this ambitious and important goal.”

Increasing the diversity of Middlebury’s energy sources, the facility will leave the college less dependent on the global oil supply and its quickly fluctuating prices. The use of regionally grown wood chips will also lessen the fuel transportation cost from its source to delivery on campus. Middlebury purchases its chips through Cousineau Forest Products, a broker that arranges wood chip delivery from multiple sources, all within a 75-mile distance from the college.

In the hopes of developing its own sustainable supply of wood chips, the college is currently testing the feasibility of fast-growing willow shrubs as biomass fuel on a 10-acre plot just west of the campus. If the willows prove to be a viable fuel source, college officials will explore the feasibility of contracting with local farmers to grow willow as a cash crop on fallow farmland near the campus.

Middlebury Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay believes the college’s new biomass plant can also help pave the way for other colleges who are considering similar plants of their own. “Colleges throughout the country are looking for ways to cut their carbon footprints, and several have already approached us looking for information about biomass,” said Jenks-Jay. “Our faculty, staff and students have invested significant time and research into this plant and we are happy to share what we’ve learned.”

“I am delighted to see Middlebury’s continued progress toward climate neutrality,” said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Middlebury is a signatory of AASHE’s American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a voluntary agreement to address climate change through action and leadership signed by more than 600 schools. “I expect other campuses will have a lot to learn from Middlebury’s experiences with this new facility,” said Dautremont-Smith.

About Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College since 2001, is one of the leading voices internationally on the topic of global climate change. He is a former staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of numerous books, including “Deep Economy,” “Enough” and “The End of Nature,” which is considered to be the first book about the global environmental crisis written for a broad audience. Now a classic of environmental writing, “The End of Nature” has drawn comparisons to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Feb. 19 Schedule of Biomass Launch Events

  • 4:30 p.m. Light refreshments, McCullough Student Center, Social Space
  • 5 p.m. Remarks and introduction by Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz
  • 5:05 p.m. Lecture by author Bill McKibben, “What Gives a College Power: On Being a Learning, Teaching Community at a Moment of Change”
  • 6 p.m. Student perspective, Middlebury senior Billie Jayne Borden
  • 6:05 p.m. Video slideshow tour of biomass plant with Q & A
  • 6:30 p.m. Walk-through tours of biomass plant, which is next to McCullough Student Center

All events except for the walk-through tours of the biomass plant will take place in the Social Space of the McCullough Student Center on Old Chapel Road. For more information, contact the Middlebury College Office of Public Affairs at 802-443-5198.

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Middlebury College Biomass Plant

Fact Sheet

  • New plant will replace 1 million gallons of #6 heating oil
  • Will reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 12,500 metric tons
  • Helps cogenerate 20% of college’s electricity on campus
  • Plant cost: approx. $12 million
  • Expected pay back period: 11 years
  • Fuel is wood chips, which are super-heated in an oxygen deprived environment, converted to gas, which is ignited to make steam
  • Steam from power plant is sent throughout campus for heating, cooling, cooking and hot water
  • Estimated annual fuel consumption of biomass plant: 21,000 tons of wood chips
  • Chips are sourced from area producers within 75 miles of campus by Cousineau Forest Products
  • Ash is sent to a local fertilizer company
  • College is currently experimenting with fast-growing willow shrubs as a possible means to provide a local, sustainable source of chips
  • Students played a significant role in research and planning of the project

Click here for a list of frequently asked questions.

Timeline: Key events for carbon neutrality and biomass at Middlebury

College identifies climate change as significant threat to be addressed on campus.

College releases Environmental Peak Report, a strategic plan for environmental education and campus sustainability at Middlebury with a recommendation to “adopt a net zero emission, carbon neutral goal for the college.”

College’s first emissions inventory conducted as a student internship and senior thesis in collaboration with Clean Air - Cool Planet.

College’s Environmental Council proposes Carbon Reduction Initiative (CRI).

Environmental Council forms subcommittee, the CRI Working Group, to explore carbon neutrality.

College president commissions the Environmental Peak of Excellence White Paper, which recommends reducing CO2 emissions through a plan created by CRI and supported by the trustees.

CRI Working Group identifies single greatest reduction in the college’s greenhouse gas footprint as burning #6 fuel oil. A subgroup begins looking at alternatives to oil.

Winter term course on “Scientific and Institutional Challenges of Becoming Carbon Neutral” forms to serve as consultants to CRI Working Group. Course issues 200-page report titled “Carbon Neutrality at Middlebury College,” which maps out possible strategies for becoming carbon neutral

CRI working group recommends to president’s executive council a preliminary goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 8% below 1990 levels by 2012.

Board of trustees endorses initial carbon reduction goal proposed by CRI.

Winter term course “Building the New Climate Movement” holds climate change conference at Middlebury

Sunday Night Group, a student environmental activists’ group forms with focus on climate change.

Board of trustees approves proposal for biomass plant submitted by subgroup of CRI.

Students propose new, more aggressive goal of carbon neutrality by fall 2016. Team of administrators and staff work with students to strengthen their recommendation.

Sustainability Office develops a standardized annual greenhouse gas inventory and reporting system with assistance from students at request of Environmental Council and CRI.

Trustees adopt resolution for college to become carbon neutral by 2016.

President Ronald D. Liebowitz signs American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.

Construction begins on biomass gasification plant.

Carbon neutrality implementation plan adopted by president’s staff council.

Biomass gasification plant completed, test burning begins.

Biomass plant begins full operation. Plant will replace more than 1 million gallons of #6 heating oil annually with locally sourced wood chips and reduce college’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40%.