Middlebury College Plans Biomass Power Plan | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Environment

Middlebury College Plans Biomass Power Plan

Local Matters


Published October 11, 2006 at 1:13 p.m.

MIDDLEBURY - Middlebury College is once again demonstrating its out-in-front commitment to combatting global warming, with its recently announced decision to build an $11 million wood chip-fired power plant on campus.

Scheduled to go online in two years, the biomass facility will enable the college to halve its current fuel-oil consumption of 2 million gallons per year. The new plant, to be built alongside an existing oil-burning unit, will also ensure that the college meets its goal of lowering its greenhouse-gas emissions by 8 percent from 1990 levels.

"There's no question that at the moment Middlebury is in the vanguard of American colleges on global warming issues," says Bill McKibben, an eco-activist and author who teaches at the college. "It's where the action is, thanks to students but also to a faculty/administration that has shown real commitment."

Middlebury students regard global warming as "the challenge of our generation," says senior Jamie Henn, co-founder of a green organization known as the Sunday Night Group. "What science is telling us is that global warming is happening today and occurring rapidly. It's something we'll have to deal with for the rest of our lives."

The Sunday Night Group, which conducts the largest weekly organizational meetings on campus, has previously led a campaign to replace every standard light bulb on campus with a long-lasting, highly efficient model. The hundreds of Midd-kid environmentalists are also promoting greater reliance on the local public-transportation system, which they worked to expand. The college likewise turns to local farmers, including student organic-crop growers, as a major source of the food consumed in dining halls.

"Students right now are more exciting to teach and work with than any of us can remember since the Vietnam era," says Nan Jenks-Jay, the school's environmental affairs director. "They want to make a difference, and they want to make it now."

They're also not satisfied with what's being accomplished at Middlebury.

While the wood-chip plant will generate far fewer metric tons of carbon emissions than does the college's oil-fired unit, it will still be pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Henn notes. "We see this project not as an end in itself but as a launching pad for other initiatives to reduce energy consumption," he says. Middlebury has to keep striving to reach its target of zero net carbon emissions by 2017, adds Henn, a history major from Cambridge, Mass.

Additional environmental benefits will be achieved through construction of an updated version of the wood-chip plant operating in Burlington's Intervale. Middlebury's facility will help heat, cool and light the 2400-student campus.

The college wants to contract with suppliers within a 50-mile radius of campus for all 21,000 tons of wood chips the plant is expected to burn each year. "That will be a boost to Addison County's sustainable forestry sector," Jenks-Jay notes. Use of a locally available renewable energy resource will also reduce oil shipments to Middlebury from faraway places.

"Every institution should be trying to wean itself from foreign fuels and non-renewables," Jenks-Jay declares. "Middlebury is proud to be leading in that direction."