Fire shuts down college biomass plant

MIDDLEBURY — A Monday morning fire at the Middlebury College biomass plant has forced the facility offline until repairs can be made.
College officials have determined that the fire began around 7 a.m., and fire crews from Middlebury and Cornwall arrived on scene soon afterward. Crews quickly concentrated the fire to one location within the building, extinguished the flames, and left the scene at about 9:30 a.m. No one was injured in the fire, and employees who had been evacuated from surrounding buildings were allowed to return to work.
While the college is still investigating the specific cause of the fire and the full extent of the damage, the administration confirmed that damage was confined to the biomass plant, which went online in February 2009 as part of the college’s bid for carbon neutrality. Monday’s incident left the nearby service building and oil power plant unharmed.
“We’re picking through the pieces,” said Mike Moser, assistant director of facilities services, on Wednesday. “We’re still trying to figure out what happened.”
Moser said the fire appears to have started in the baghouse — the part of the plant that filters particulates out of the wood smoke. He said the baghouse is one of three large, primary-colored boxes inside the glass walls of the plant.
Since the plant burns woodchips at such high temperatures — about 2,000 degrees Farenheit — to generate steam and electricity, Moser said on Wednesday that the systems were still cooling down after being taken offline Monday.
While repairs and analysis of the plant are ongoing, Moser said the fire didn’t affect steam and electricity supply to the campus.
“We have backup systems in place, running parallel to the biomass plant,” he said.
For now, the oil-fired plant next to the newer biomass facility has ramped up production. Moser said that in the winter, the biomass plant runs at levels nearly twice those in the warmer seasons, since its primary function is to generate steam to heat the campus.
Still, he said the biomass plant consumes between 50 and 70 tons of wood chips per day at this time of the year, which will continue to be replaced by oil generation until the biomass plant can be put back into production.
The overall impact of the incident won’t be clear for at least another week, but the administration assured the public that the temporary shutdown of the plant was only a small setback in college’s carbon neutrality initiative, especially since it occurred at a time of year when overall demand for steam is lower.
“We are still confident that we will reach our goal of carbon neutrality by 2016,” said a statement released by the college. “We are working to get the plant back in operation as soon as possible and in the meantime we continue to pursue other opportunities for reducing our carbon emissions.”
Meanwhile, Moser and others in the administration are breathing a sigh of relief that the fire was contained so quickly, and that there were no injuries.
“The local fire departments did a great job,” said Moser. “They deserve to be recognized.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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