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Think globally, heat locally: College celebrates opening of biomass plant

February 20, 2009

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - More than 300 people gathered in the McCullough Social Space on Thursday, Feb. 19, to celebrate the launch of Middlebury College's new biomass gasification plant.

Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz welcomed the audience of students, faculty, staff, and townspeople by saying, "This event is somewhat unusual. A new plant that generates heat and electricity doesn't usually evoke so much attention and enthusiasm. But this is no ordinary energy plant."

Biomass gasification, the president explained, is a new technology that cuts the College's consumption of heating oil by 1,000,000 gallons and reduces the College's total carbon dioxide emissions by about 40 percent, or the equivalent of 12,500 metric tons per year.

Project Manager Tom McGinn (in white shirt) points to the regrinder machine, where wood chips enter the biomass plant, during a tour on Feb. 19.

The opening of the biomass plant, which became fully operational in January 2009, takes Middlebury a long way toward its stated goal of being carbon neutral by the year 2016, he said.

Middlebury Scholar in Residence Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, a groundbreaking book on climate change that was first published two decades ago, told the audience that it was Middlebury students six years ago who first determined that the College's heating plant, burning of No. 6 fuel oil, was the institution's largest single source emitting carbon into the atmosphere.

He said it took "real courage" on the part of the administration and the board of trustees to heed the students' warnings, examine the data, and invest $12 million in the construction of a heating plant that does not produce an ounce of carbon dioxide.

Major carbon reduction efforts such as the biomass plant at Middlebury, McKibben said, "can happen everywhere and must happen everywhere, because the science of climate change shows us a much darker picture today than it was four or five years ago."

"The signal event was the melting of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007," he said. "The world is going to be hotter and drier place, and we will continue to see rapid and destabilizing changes around us" unless the world's population makes drastic changes in the near future.

McKibben urged the audience to visit, the Web site for his international effort to stop global warming by stimulating action that will bring the number of carbon parts per million in our atmosphere back to a safe level, i.e. 350 ppm.

The environmentalist from Ripton, who's been at Middlebury since 2002, concluded by saying that he visits many colleges these days, but "no place comes close to Middlebury for environmental activism."

Also in connection with the biomass launch celebration, Tom McGinn and Mike Moser from Facilities Services gave tours of the plant, a five-minute virtual tour of the plant was shown in the newly renovated McCullough Social Space, and students presented a display of materials related to MiddShift, the College's commitment to be carbon neutral by 2016.

- Text and photos by Robert Keren