Jack Byrne: The goal to become carbon neutral started in 2007. It followed on the heels of an earlier goal that was set in 2004. When it looked like that goal was going to be achieved because the trustees approved funding for the biomass plant, students went to, Ron Liebowitz, the President of the college at the time.
Jack Byrne: Said, “We should have a new goal. Our new goal, we should be carbon neutral by 2016.” Ron was impressed enough with the students’ arguments that he said, “I’ll give you 20 minutes at the next trustees meeting, you better be prepared.”
Churchill F.: He guided them a bit about things to be ready for. He said, “I said to the students, there’s one board member who will ask you the first question. The first question will be, “What if we don’t get there and how will we deal with that?”
Churchill F.: The students made their presentation, and the board member put his or her hand up and said, “So what happens if we don’t make it?” The student having had a little bit of guidance, a little bit of anticipation, Ron mentioned he was really proud of this, said, “We actually haven’t figured that out yet.”
May Boeve: I completely remember feeling really intimidated and unprepared and, “What do we say? What do we do?” Getting questions that I didn’t know the answer to, and just needing to really be grounded in, “This is the right thing. At the end of the day, this is the right thing to do.”
May Boeve: The mechanics of how it gets done and the timeline, and all these variables that have to be negotiated by people who know the technical details, leave that piece to them.
May Boeve: Our role as students was making a moral demand that, “Here is Middlebury, this strong leader in sustainability. Here is a very obvious and concrete step the college can take.” We wanted the college to do it. I think for student organizers, that is your power.
Jack Byrne: The trustees essentially said, “We’re interested, but come back to us in February and show us how we’re going to do it.”
Churchill F.: There was a deep belief that figuring out a way to get to carbon neutrality, was exactly how we wanted to be positioned. The idea that we didn’t quite know how we’re going to get there was obviously the hurdle.
Jack Byrne: At that point, they formed a subcommittee of these students and some people from the board and the college, who worked on that question and essentially came back and said, “Look, if we don’t do anything more than bio-mass, we could get to carbon neutrality by buying somebody else’s offsets.
Jack Byrne: We don’t want to do that, but if we did, here’s the risk.” It was about $200,000 a year. Trustees said, “Well, we could be comfortable with taking that risk,” and that’s when they adopted the goal to become carbon neutral by 2016.
Nan Jenks-Jay: Were an early innovator, the learning curve was steep. We decided that this at the beginning would be an inclusive and participatory process, that always makes a process longer and more complex. It also improves it significantly.
Jack Byrne: Ultimately, we got to carbon neutrality through two major steps. One was, we switched our fuels primarily to wood chips and biomass, to heat and power the campus. Now the second thing we did is, we permanently conserved 2,100 acres of forest land.
Nan Jenks-Jay: By preserving the Bread Loaf lands last year, we’ll be credited towards our carbon reduction, instead of buying carbon credit somewhere else.
Jack Byrne: Along the way, there were dozens of things that we looked at and tried. We had to really spend a lot of time figuring out how to make the biomass plant work well. Today, it works really well. It works better than the manufacturer’s specifications for it.
Mike Moser: The biomass plant came online in late 2008. The intent, the original design intent of the biomass plant was to displace half of that number six oil, 1 million gallons a year, with 20,000 tons of locally-sourced renewable wood chips.
Mike Moser: The actual operation of the plant had a bumpy first year. There were a lot of technical obstacles we worked through, but by about 2010, we’d shattered those barriers. The plant was up and running. We’d reached our goal of 20,000 tons a year.
Mike Moser: As I reflect back now through those times, I mean last year, nearly 24,000 tons of wood chips, only 600,000 gallons of number six oil received. It’s really moved forward.
Jack Byrne: Here we are today, we’re carbon neutral by virtue of having switched our fuel to biomass, done efficiency projects, invested in renewables. We’ve conserved 2,100 acres of land to do that. I think in the process, we’ve created our own internal form of offsets.
Jack Byrne: We’ve done this by taking advantage of the assets and the resources we have within the college to do it. I think we can be really proud of the way we’ve gotten there.
Nan Jenks-Jay: When you look at the past decade that we’ve been talking about this, you really see that although individuals have changed and students have come and gone, the commitment and the methodology to embed this decision-making process and higher learning, and in problem solving is… that’s the golden nugget.
Churchill F.: An awful lot of carbon neutrality is definitional. By some definitions, there’s plenty of work still to do.
Mike Moser: What else is out there? What else can do to continuously push the envelope? I think our success is due to, we don’t stop. We, students, staff, faculty, the facilities, the operations of the plant, always looking to push the envelope.
May Boeve: For us, it gave us this experience of leadership, and of asking for something of the president and getting at the answer that we wanted. Which when you’re getting involved in activism, that’s kind of the best thing you can hope for.
May Boeve: Is that through your work, the decision maker says, “Yes,” to what you were asking. I think that helped make a whole generation of Middlebury students, really active leaders in the climate movement.
Jack Byrne: We created a pathway that other institutions can learn from. I think it demonstrates that an institution can really do something on its own, to contribute to solutions to this problem.
Laurie Patton: As I’ve experienced this community, we can do almost anything creatively if we put our mind to it, particularly when it comes to environmental goals and environmental ethics.
Laurie Patton: I’m delighted that we are as an institution, now thinking about next steps beyond carbon neutrality. I want everyone to stay tuned as to what we do for the future.
Nan Jenks-Jay: I really believe that carbon neutrality is a continuum that we’re on, and it’s just part of something more that we’re going to be doing. It is a place that became catalytic, and brought this community together at its very best.
Nan Jenks-Jay: While this seems like a milestone and an end point, it’s not at all. We’re probably in the infancy of what Middlebury is going to be doing, and that’s even more exciting.
Nan Jenks-Jay: (singing)