Middlebury College heads toward carbon neutral goal

MIDDLEBURY — Despite a delay in the implementation of a biomethane digester, Middlebury College’s sustainability director said the school is well on its way to reaching its goal of becoming completely carbon-neutral by 2016.
“I’m fairly optimistic we can get there,” said Jack Byrne, director of the college’s Office of Sustainability.
Middlebury in 2007 set a goal of becoming completely carbon-neutral — that is, making no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through energy use — by 2016. To do this, the college has worked to use less energy and invested in renewable energy sources, such as biomass, biomethane and solar power.
In an annual report last August, the college reported that it had reduced its carbon emissions by 40 percent since 2007, largely due to burning wood chips, a form of biomass energy. While burning wood chips emits carbon in the atmosphere, it is considered carbon-neutral, as the trees used for the chips once converted carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen.
The biomass energy has decreased the college’s reliance on No. 6 fuel oil, which when burned emits harmful compounds such as sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. The college estimates it has saved $1 million on fuel oil each of the last four years by burning 20,000 metric tons of locally sourced wood chips annually.
Solar power, though to a lesser extent, has also helped Middlebury toward its goal. A solar farm, installed off Route 125 just west of the campus in 2012, produced 243,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in its first year — enough to power a residence hall for that period. Conservation and efficiency efforts have resulted in a 9 percent decrease in electricity use by the college over the last decade.
While Middlebury is nearly half way to becoming carbon-neutral, biomass and solar power alone won’t complete the job. A biomethane digester, which converts the methane gas emitted by cow manure into energy, is a major component in the college’s carbon-neutral plan. 
The college has partnered with a startup called Integrated Energy Services and the Goodrich Farm in Salisbury to supply the college with energy from the farm’s biomethane digester. The college estimated last August that the project would be complete this spring, but Byrne said that timeline has since been pushed back.
“We’re looking at late 2014, early 2015,” he said. “The project is now in the permitting process.”
Byrne said the plan is for the digester to connect to the Vermont Gas Systems natural gas pipeline, which is likely to be constructed this year. The college would then take an equivalent amount of gas from its connection to the pipeline.
“We’ll end up burning a mix of biomethane from the farm and natural gas line,” Byrne said. “We’re buying the methane, and burning the equivalent amount from the pipeline.”
Byrne estimated the college would be able to annually reap the equivalent of 640,000 gallons of fuel oil from the biomethane digester — enough to reach the carbon-neutral goal.
Byrne said that Middlebury’s leading role in renewable energy use has enabled the institution to help out other colleges and towns become more energy efficient.
“We’ve had numerous visits by people who want to understand what we’re doing,” Byrne said. “We’ve advised colleges — Colby College recently put in a biomass system.”
Byrne added that Middlebury has also helped Green Mountain College and Eastern Illinois University with biomass projects.
“If it turns out the way we’ve been pushing it, we’ll have a nice model to get local renewables efficiently, between biomass and forest resources we have, cow manure and helping support dairy farm operations as well as a small startup company,” Byrne said. “In effect we’ve helped make it possible to help them move forward.”
Byrne said an added advantage is that more of the money spent by the college on energy is staying in Vermont.
“We’ve shifted spending from fossil fuel to buying it directly from loggers and foresters, instead of $2 million on fuel oil,” Byrne said. “Biomethane will shift that many more dollars toward a local economy.”
Byrne said the college has also worked to lower how much energy it uses.
“We’ve done a significant amount of energy efficiency and conservation work,” Byrne said. “We want to reduce the use of energy per square foot or keep it level as we grow.”
A key component to achieving this goal will be educating students, faculty and staff how to be energy-conscious, Byrne said.
“We’ve started an energy literacy campaign on campus that we’re building up over the coming year,” Byrne said. “Once we get to carbon neutral, we need to stay there.”

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