Middlebury College achieves carbon neutrality
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College has won an important battle in what Resident Scholar Bill McKibben recently asserted must become an all-out war on climate change.
Late last week the college announced it had reached carbon neutrality, meaning it has brought its net carbon footprint to zero.
“I am thrilled to announce this significant moment in Middlebury’s history of environmental leadership,” said President Laurie Patton, in the announcement.
In 2007, college trustees accepted a student-led challenge to make the college carbon neutral by 2016. Since then Middlebury has reduced its carbon footprint dramatically through a combination of switching to renewable fuel sources and carrying out energy-efficiency upgrades campuswide. It took the remaining step to carbon neutrality by claiming carbon offsets (in a process called sequestration) from 2,100 acres of Green Mountain forestland preserved in perpetuity around its Bread Loaf campus in Ripton.
While hundreds of colleges nationwide have pledged to become carbon neutral, Middlebury is perhaps only the fifth nationwide to achieve that goal, joining Maine’s Colby College and College of the Atlantic, the University of Minnesota at Morris and Green Mountain College in Poultney.
“It’s not just reaching a goal, it’s how we got there that’s been so rewarding and exhilarating,” said Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay. “It was faculty, students, staff and administrators working together throughout the whole process.”
PATH TO NEUTRALITY
Carbon dioxide is one of the principal causes of climate change, or global warming. Like other “greenhouse gases,” when the volume of the gas increases in Earth’s atmosphere, it allows solar energy to reach the surface but traps it so excess heat can’t escape into space.
In May 2007, when college trustees adopted the carbon neutrality resolution, the college emitted 28,554 metric tons of carbon dioxide in that fiscal year. By fiscal year 2016, it had reduced emissions to 13,539 metric tons, cutting its carbon footprint by more than a half.
One of the first and most important steps was replacing Number 6 fuel oil for heating and electricity generation with locally sourced wood chips. The wood chips are considered carbon neutral because they are harvested from surrounding forests and represent less than 1 percent of those forests’ net growth annually, said Middlebury Director of Sustainability Integration Jack Byrne.
To turn those chips into fuel, the college constructed a $12 million biomass gasification system in 2008. The biomass plant generates around 75 percent of the college’s heat (sending steam through more than 19,000 feet of steam pipe on the main campus) and roughly 20 percent of its electricity.
The chips are purchased through Bristol’s Lathrop Forest Products and the A. Johnson Company, and at around 20,000 tons burned a year inject around $1 million annually into the local economy.
Since 2007 the college has reduced its Number 6 fuel oil consumption by 91 percent, from 2 million gallons annually close to a decade ago to around 185,000 in fiscal year 2016. (Part of the last fiscal year’s reduction in Number 6 fuel oil resulted from bringing fracked natural gas into the mix, a point of controversy with many climate activists).
In addition to the shift to biomass, the college is a partner in three solar arrays (two in Middlebury and one in Pittsford), which together generate 1,150 kilowatts. The most recent of these is a 500 kW array in Pittsford.
Together the solar installations supply around 8 percent of the college’s electricity. MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE DIRECTOR of Sustainability Integration Jack Byrne stands with one of the college’s three solar fields, which contributed to the institution’s recent announcement that it was now carbon neutral.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Jenks-Jay and Byrne admitted that the path to fossil fuel reduction has had some interesting side roads, as dozens of renewable energy ideas were pitched to the college. One such side road was the college’s attempt to grow willow as its own renewable fuel source — a three-year project that didn’t pan out as hoped.
“When we put the (willow) chips in there it brought the (biomass gasification) plant to a screeching halt,” said Jenks-Jay.
“Like feeding it bad food,” Byrne added.
Side by side with the shift to renewable fuels has been a series of projects undertaken in partnership with Efficiency Vermont to make campus buildings more energy efficient. Over the past 14 years this has encompassed 87 projects and cost $1.5 million.
All in all, these changes have brought huge savings. The shift to wood chips has saved the college between $1 million and $2 million a year. Making the buildings themselves more energy efficient has generated savings of around $636,000 annually.
Yet they still left the college around 13,539 metric tons of CO2 shy of being carbon neutral.
For a number of years, the hope had been that the outstanding carbon balance would be reduced through a Salisbury project to generate renewable methane gas from cow manure and other organic waste on a the Goodrich farm in Salisbury and pipe it to the college.
Last spring, regulators authorized the construction and operation of that pipeline in a project spearheaded by a company called Lincoln Renewable Natural Gas. LincolnRNG contracted to sell 75 percent of the gas to Middlebury College and the rest to Vermont Gas Systems.
But that project has yet to come to fruition. And when the college saw in early 2016 that it was not going to happen this year, campus leaders decided to instead reach carbon neutrality by claiming carbon credit on the college’s preserved Bread Loaf acres.
Trees naturally capture and store carbon; this process is called sequestration.
Jenks-Jay and Byrne both feel that carbon sequestration offers nonprofit landholders such as colleges, universities, hospitals or religious organizations (which often own large tracts of land) a new kind of incentive to preserve their acreage. Alongside the values already inherent in land preservation — such as habitat defragmentation, enhanced biodiversity and greater opportunities for education and recreation — carbon sequestration claims a new sort of dollar tag for preserved acreage.
“There’s a lot of interest in how we accomplished this and how this might be a nuanced way for institutions of higher education to think about protecting their land, which generally they don’t because it’s an asset that they don’t want to lose value in,” said Jenks-Jay.
Carbon sequestration “could be another incentive for conserving land,” Byrne added.
Middlebury had already preserved the 2,100 acres in 2014 through the Vermont Land Trust, which holds the conservation easement on the land. It has engaged the California- and Utah-based Bluesource LLC to carry out the official steps toward carbon sequestration.
“What we can do is open a window to a new way of thinking about responsible land stewardship and responsibility to our climate situation,” said Jenks-Jay. “That’s why we think that there’ll be an ‘Aha!’ moment with this.”
Both emphasized that changes at the federal level could make this a critical time for local and state organizations to assert even greater leadership on climate issues.
Indeed, climate scientists recently assessed 2016 as likely to be the hottest year on record, following close on the heels of record-breaking temperatures in 2015 and 2014.
Said Byrne, “It’s important to do the kinds of things that we’re doing because right now a lot of the solutions to climate change are going to happen increasingly at the local and state level because it appears that federal policy is probably not going to advance in the next four years. So the more examples of how to make it work out at the local level the better.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at email@example.com.