Town, college officials consider Middlebury biomass co-op

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College and Middlebury town officials have abandoned preliminary plans announced this spring to build a community biomass-fired power plant that would have powered college and town facilities. But representatives from the town and the college are gearing up instead to explore a new collaboration for a “biomass purchasing cooperative” and community renewable energy fund.
It’s a project town and college officials hope might pave the way for small biomass facilities in the Middlebury area that could be supplied by wood chips and other biomass materials from the surrounding region.
“The true hook isn’t the creation of a biomass plant per se,” said Assistant Town Manager Joe Colangelo. “The true hook is solving the supply problem.”
Interest in more biomass energy-generation facilities in the region has been high after Middlebury College’s first biomass plant, a $12 million gasification boiler that converts wood chips into steam for heating, went online earlier this year.
By cutting the college’s dependence on fuel oil for heating needs, the plant is anticipated to trim the school’s carbon dioxide emissions by roughly 40 percent. Depending on the cost of wood chips and fuel oil, college officials also expect the plant could save the institution roughly $700,000 annually.
Those goals — trimming an institution’s carbon footprint, and weaning it off fuel oil — make biomass plants an attractive prospect for some organizations. Now, Colangelo and Middlebury College Director of Sustainability Integration Jack Byrne are pulling together a team of local experts to gauge interest and execute a feasibility study they hope could outline a path for moving forward.
A kick-off meeting is slated for Monday, Sept. 28.
“There does seem to be quite a bit of interest,” Colangelo said. “The project itself is interesting because it blends a community development project that would be good for the area economy with a plan to be more green. I think it’s exciting because it brings together two ideals that people care about here.”
The feasibility study is estimated to cost $250,000, but the Montpelier-based Biomass Energy Resource Center has already pledged $150,000 toward that amount. Colangelo and Byrne have requested the additional $100,000 from Vermont’s Clean Energy Development Fund.
Over the next year, the feasibility study will:
• Identify groups in the area, like Middlebury College, town municipal buildings and Porter Medical Center, that could potentially use biomass facilities, and determine the best biomass technology for each of those institutions.
• Define the ecological capacity of the region within a given radius (Byrne suggested 75 miles) to provide biomass for the town. That could include wood chips harvested from forests, or other biomass including willow crops cultivated on farmland.
• Measure the “carbon sequestration” — a technique for capturing and storing carbon dioxide — that is already happening as a result of forestry and agriculture in the region, and explore ways for increasing carbon sequestration.
• Develop a community renewable energy fund, which would be seeded by the savings that institutions tally after switching from fuel oil to biomass.
If the feasibility study is promising, college officials hope to move on to “phase two”: the construction of a second biomass plant at Middlebury College that would essentially eliminate the use of fuel oil at the school.
That stage is estimated to cost anywhere from $8 million to $10 million, and the college would need to find an outside source of funding to underwrite that construction, Byrne said.
“The college is in a tight financial situation like a lot of institutions. We would be looking for external sources of funding,” he said.
But right now talk of a second biomass plant is taking the backseat to the broader discussion about a biomass purchasing cooperative.
“It would provide more leverage in either purchasing price or in helping improve the practices of producing biomass,” Byrne said.
This latest collaboration takes the place of a project that cropped up early last spring that has since fallen by the wayside. In March, Middlebury College unveiled a preliminary proposal to build a $22.5 million community biomass plant that would have contributed power to the college, the town of Middlebury and Porter Medical Center.
At the time, the college was angling for federal stimulus funds for the project, and directed its proposal to a Massachusetts congressman and Middlebury College alum, Rep. Bill Delahunt.
Since March, though, that initial proposal has effectively been scrapped, Byrne said.
“When we looked deeper into (the idea of one plant that serves several entities), it didn’t look like a cost-effective solution,” Byrne said.
The plan would have been particularly expensive because of the cost of steam piping between far-flung buildings. Building a network of steam pipes, Byrne said, may have cost nearly as much as constructing the plant itself.

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