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Students offer Middlebury CO2 road map

DEREK LU AND Ella Du of Middlebury College, shown at a Middlebury selectboard meeting this month, were part of a student-led effort to advise the town on how to cut its CO2 emissions by 80% by the end of this decade.
Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury College student group has unveiled a proposed road map for the town of Middlebury’s quest to cut its emission of carbon dioxide cause by municipal operations by 80% by the end of this decade.

The report in question was assembled by the Middlebury Consulting Group (MCG), a non-profit student organization that provides free research and problem-solving services to local businesses and national startups. MCG student members get to apply — in an entrepreneurial setting — the business principles they are learning in the classroom at Middlebury College.

Middlebury Energy Committee Chair Howard Widelitz said Dan Rafferty, a fellow committee member, had suggested engaging with MCG to assist with research on how the town might achieve its ambitious carbon-reduction goal.

“The suggestion was to have (the MCG student members) gain an understanding of the existing municipal CO2 emissions and to help prioritize the limited investments to obtain the greatest reduction in these emissions,” Widelitz said. “We have had very positive results with student support in the past and decided, as a committee, to engage the MCG.”

 MCG subsequently voted to take on the Middlebury Energy Committee project. Students Derek Lu and Ella Du were named co-leaders of the assignment, which kicked off in late March.

A seven-member MCG team launched headlong into Middlebury’s CO2-reduction quest. First, the team gathered local CO2 emissions data from longtime town energy committee member Richard Hopkins. The team identified the two main contributors to the CO2 generated by Middlebury municipal operations: fuel use and heating.

This led to the team to design short- and long-term plans for the town to reduce carbon emissions associated with fuel and heating. During the ensuing six weeks, the MCG members crunched numbers and reached out to municipal officials, state environmental authorities, energy suppliers and industry experts to get insights on how Middlebury could achieve its carbon footprint goal.

“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just us sitting behind the computer and gathering research,” Lu told the Independent in a phone interview.

It all culminated in MCG’s delivery of a 22-page report to the energy committee and Middlebury selectboard earlier this month.

The report included some of the following findings and suggestions:

• Municipal operations during fiscal year 2022 produced a total of around 1.34 million pounds of carbon dioxide. The highest CO2 emitters among Middlebury town services that year were public works (34.8%), fire department (20.1%), sewer department (17.6%) and police department (14.8%). 

MCG acknowledged the town has seen a nice, 38% (or 756,000 pounds) decline in CO2 emissions since fiscal year 2019, but that’s associated with the town electricity provider Green Mountain Power’s transition to green energy. So at this point, the town will have to make changes at the local level if it’s to move the needle on CO2 generation, the MCG team noted.

And that’s going to be a tall order, as the town will need to reduce its CO2 emissions by another 923,676 pounds (from 2022 levels) if it’s to achieve its 80%-reduction goal by 2030, according to MCG.

• A proposed major makeover of the Ilsley Library and a scheduled massive upgrade of Middlebury’s wastewater treatment plant could pay nice dividends in the CO2 battle, MCG team members said.

The town currently spends $18,000 annually for fuel oil at the treatment plant, which produces 134,400 pounds of CO2 annually. Transitioning to natural gas would save $9,085 and reduce CO2 emissions by 26,265 pounds, according to MCG. But this transition would, among other things, require installation of two new boilers. 

• The town could also save on fuel use by installing “smart thermostats” in its buildings. Among other things, these thermostats can detect when rooms are unused (and adjust fuel consumption accordingly) and adjust heating or cooling needs to specific zones in a building.

• “Enveloping” — the process of making buildings energy tight through added insulation and sealing — could also shave the town’s CO2 total.

• Transitioning from propane and fuel oil to more environmentally friendly alternatives — such as natural gas and biodiesel. The group estimated the town’s fire department and recreation center used a combined 9,616 gallons of propane during fiscal year 2022. MCG estimates that natural gas emits 6.63% less CO2 than propane, suggesting the town could cut its annual CO2 output by 7,738 pounds — and save $13,000 — by transitioning to the former.

The group further submitted the town could save $9,085 and reduce CO2 emissions by 26,265 pounds annually by switching from fuel oil to natural gas at its wastewater treatment plant.

Middlebury could also reduce its carbon footprint by using B99 biodiesel as a heating source, and B20 biodiesel as a fuel replacement for traditional diesel, according to MCG.

Local officials have been concerned about the potential for biodiesel to freeze, or gel, inside vehicles during cold Vermont winters. But a mixture of 20% biodiesel and 80% regular diesel has been proven to work well in cold temperatures and would emit 15% less CO2 than traditional diesel or heating oil, according to MCG research.

FINANCIAL HELP

The student consultants acknowledged the financial barriers to following some of their recommendations but pointed to several funding sources to blunt the financial impact for the town.

Among the money Middlebury could tap: Volkswagen diesel settlement funds, the Vermont Diesel Emissions Reduction Financial Assistance Program, the Vermont Department of Housing & Community Development, the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure fund, and the Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program.

“Not only does the town need to know where to get funding, it also has to have the necessary system and structure to apply for funding,” the student consultants wrote in their report summary. “However, the application process is complex and labor-intensive.”

MCG is encouraging the town to recruit from Middlebury College’s Environmental Science students to fill a grant writing role. This could yield big dollars for the town, while giving students real-world insight into government incentive programs.

Middlebury can’t afford, on its own, to phase fossil fuels out of its heating and fuel portfolio. But it doesn’t hurt to prepare for that eventuality, according to Lu.

“It might not be feasible now based on the costs to electrify… but (the MCG report) is providing the infrastructure to chase after this (grant) money now, because there are a lot of financial incentives there to prepare the town for the transition that will eventually have to come if they want to hit that 80% (goal).”

Widelitz said his committee is pleased to have MCG’s input. He acknowledged one “area of concern” from the committee — the MCG’s proposal that the town switch fuel sources from propane to natural gas.

“This was contrary to the strategy the committee has been taking given the serious impact of natural gas as a greenhouse gas,” he explained. “Their proposals for an anaerobic digester at the wastewater treatment plant were more centered around the financial benefits and did not get into the complexities of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Widelitz said that ideally, there should have been more interaction between MCG and the energy committee.

“A lesson learned for future engagement,” he said, but added, “Overall, for a six-week project, they developed a good understanding of their areas of focus even if they didn’t introduce electrification as a solution to reducing emissions from thermal heat sources. They provided a very professional presentation with data to support their proposals and were very receptive to feedback from the selectboard and energy committee.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]. 

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