Middlebury College Experiments With Sustainable Biomass


College campuses across the United States are taking the lead in the transition to a clean energy future, thanks both to their roll as developers of new technologies and ideas, and to the activities of students themselves who are determined to create a more sustainable world. But as more and more colleges and universities move to reduce their reliance on coal and other dirty fossil fuels, some have found themselves in a quandary over what cleaner fuel makes the best alternative. Will colleges that once relied on coal power merely switch to slightly cleaner natural gas, or can they go all the way and transition to truly renewable energy?

A technology deployed by Energy Exchange Enterprises at Middlebury College in Vermont could eventually help colleges, utilities, and other institutions make the jump to clean energy more easily. Middlebury has some of the most ambitious climate and energy goals of any college in the country, and aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. Among other efficiency and clean energy goals designed to help the college meet that target, Middlebury is developing a wood gasification plant, with the hope of using sustainably harvested local resources to generate a sustained clean energy supply.

In contrast to a conventional wood stove, gasification involves burning woody material at extremely high temperatures to generate steam. This steam can then be used for heating buildings and water. The system is much more efficient than a wood stove, and other features help reduce particulate matter and other harmful emissions. According to the Middlebury College blog, filters in the system ensure more than 99% of particulate emissions are removed.

What seems important about Middlebury’s experiment with biomass is that it addresses many of the problems with other biomass experiments. In addition to using energy as efficiently as possible and minimizing particulate emissions, Middlebury has a stated goal of obtaining all wood chips for the plant from sustainably managed forests within seventy-five miles of the college. Successful implementation of this goal will be one of the most important tests of the gasification system’s success. If wood can be provided from truly sustainable sources, it will mean the biomass facility isn’t simply replacing fossil fuel combustion with deforestation that also contributes to climate change.

The even larger question, of course, is whether a sustainable biomass model developed at a single college can be applied to other projects throughout the country. Of course the more energy you are trying to produce, the harder it is to make sure all of it comes from sustainable sources. For this reason biomass will never be the silver bullet that fixes the US addiction to dirty fuels. However Middlebury’s daring experiment could help energy providers throughout the country build biomass systems that are as clean and sustainable as possible. Such biomass plants could play an important part in the new clean energy economy.

For biomass to become a viable replacement for fossil fuels that doesn’t create a host of new environmental problems of its own, biomass facilities must be designed to run on a locally grown food supply, minimize particulate air emissions, and of course be as efficient as possible. Energy Exchange Enterprise’s wood gasification plant at Middlebury College seems to incorporate each of these key requirements, and could help a growing industry reduce its carbon footprint and local pollution impacts. With momentum building for a clean energy revolution, this goal has never been more important.

Article by Nick Engelfried, appearing courtesy Justmeans.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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