College to add farm methane to fuel mix

MIDDLEBURY — First wood chips, now manure.
After firing up a $12 million biomass plant to burn wood for heat last winter, Middlebury College is hoping to turn another local resource — manure from the county’s dairy farms — into an alternative form of heating fuel to power the campus.
On-farm methane digesters have already drawn attention in Vermont for using manure from some of the state’s larger dairy farms to generate methane gas, which is burned to create electricity.
Now, the college could be the first in the state to use bio-methane, as it’s calling the byproduct of the manure-to-fuel process, to replace heating oil. Middlebury College this week announced it has entered into a preliminary agreement with Montpelier-based Integrated Energy Solutions (IES) to introduce bio-methane into the college’s portfolio of heating fuel, swapping as many as 650,000 gallons each year of No. 6 fuel oil for bio-methane gas produced from manure from local dairy farms.
“Like our switching to wood chips, it means hopefully we can spend money on fuel in the local economy in a sector of the economy that needs a boost,” said Jack Byrne, the director of sustainability integration at the college.
If all goes according to plan, the college could be burning bio-methane as early as the fall of 2011, but the plan is contingent on both the college and IES building new infrastructure to create, collect and burn the new fuel.
In total, the investment would cost around $9 million — $2 million from the college to build a storage facility for the gas on campus and to retrofit its current heating plant to burn the new fuel, and $7 million from IES to finance a facility in Addison County to pool manure from nearby farms and generate the bio-methane fuel.
Though on-farm methane generators have been used in Vermont to generate electricity — think Central Vermont Public Service’s “Cow Power” project — this would likely be the first project in the state to use bio-methane for heating purposes. The methane digester would also be the only one of its kind in the state to pool waste from multiple smaller dairies.
The process for generating methane gas from farm waste is relatively simple: Manure from a several smaller farms would be collected at a central facility, where it would then be fed into the concrete holding tank of an anaerobic digester, then heated up to produce methane gas.
Steve Terry, a co-founder of Worth Mountain Consulting in Middlebury, is working with IES on the project. He said the IES digester might incorporate food waste from other local businesses into the process, too. One possibility includes yeast-rich waste from Otter Creek Brewing.
After retrofitting its heating plant, the college would burn the bio-methane gas to boil water. That in turn would generate steam to heat the campus, and byproducts of the process could be used to generate electricity.
Simple though it may be, the project still comes with plenty of question marks. Though Middlebury College has signed a 10-year agreement to purchase bio-methane from IES, both the college and IES founder and President Dan Smith declined to say how much the gas might cost. Byrne said only that the college is committed to making sure the gas isn’t more expensive than buying fuel oil.
The locations of the new facilities are also up in the air: Smith would not comment on where he might build the central processing facility, and Byrne said only that the college’s “receiving station” would need to be close enough to the institution’s heating plant to minimize the length of the pipeline but far enough away so as not to interfere with the current wood chip operation.
Smith also declined to comment on how much farmers might be paid for their manure. He’s still in the process of lining up farms for the project, but said the processing facility would pool waste from around 3,500 cows.
After 14 months of negotiating with the college, Smith said he’s excited to approach farmers now that he has a signed contract from the school in hand. After working for years as the director of the Northeast Dairy Compact, he says he’s keenly interested in improving economic opportunities for dairy farmers.
He also thinks the Middlebury College project makes sense given the scale of most dairy farms in Vermont. His project could let farmers turn manure into methane without investing in on-farm digesters that wouldn’t make sense on smaller farms.
In addition to being paid for their manure, farmers would also receive some of the byproducts of the methane generation process, including bedding for their animals and manure to spread on their fields.
“My professional career in large part has been dedicated to finding a rational milk price for farmers,” Smith said. “This is an attempt to try on the private sector side to create diversification on the farm.”
Funding could be critical: Byrne and Smith said that on both the college and IES fronts, they’ll be hunting for as many sources of funding — including federal and state help — as possible. Fitting the $2 million cost to the college into the budget isn’t an option, Byrne said, so outside fund-raising and investments will be critical to moving ahead.
“We’re very hopeful and this is very promising,” Byrne said, “but we’ve got a number of hurdles to leap before we get there.”
Fuel could help college reach carbon neutrality
MIDDLEBURY — A proposed bio-methane project at Middlebury College comes on the heels of the institution’s construction of a $12 million biomass plant in 2008. The school fired up the new plant — which burns wood chips to generate steam for heating — in early 2009, and has slowly been ratcheting it up to full capacity.
When the wood chip plant is running at full steam — something the college hopes to accomplish in the next fiscal year — officials anticipate burning 20,000 tons of chips a year. That could offset fully half of the 2 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil the school once burned.
Bio-methane, meanwhile, could replace an estimated 650,000 gallons of heating fuel.
The wood chip boiler marked Middlebury College’s first major step toward its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2016, and Byrne said that using bio-methane gas would inch the school closer still. Like the wood chip boiler, bio-methane would also mean the college could buy more heating fuel locally.
Of course, the carbon neutrality goal is still an ambitious one, and Byrne declined to say whether or not the college was on track to meet its self-mandated deadline.
“(Bio-methane) could put us close,” he said.
But it won’t be the final step. The college is also beginning to look at how college-owned lands could be better managed to sequester more carbon, though verifying emissions reductions that way could be tricky.
Byrne said the school is also focusing on ways both to reduce energy consumption and increase energy efficiency. Last year the college spent around $159,000 on energy efficiency improvements to four buildings, and Efficiency Vermont has since estimated that the improvements are saving the college about $104,000 each year in electricity and energy costs.
That means the projects will pay for themselves in less than two years.
“More of those kinds of projects are on our plate,” Byrne said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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