Column: Dartmouth biomass plant would benefit N.H. forests

  • Dartmouth officials said the proposed biomass facility in Hanover would be somewhat bigger than facilities at Norwich University (above) in Northfield, Vt., and Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)

To the Valley News
Published: 8/13/2019 10:20:15 PM
Modified: 8/13/2019 10:20:09 PM

The proposal by Dartmouth College to replace its aging oil burning heating plant with a modern wood burning facility to heat the 119 buildings on the college’s campus is a common-sense solution to a complicated problem.

The proposed wood burning facility is a solution that would help the college heat its campus efficiently for the next 30 years. It would weans a major consumer of energy in the region from the use of fossil fuels. And it would helps New Hampshire forests to continue providing the multiple benefits they now provide as the climate continues to change. Further, the air emissions from the new wood chip burning plant would be cleaner than the plant on campus it will replace.

New Hampshire’s forests are among its most valuable natural assets. They provide filtered drinking water for residents and visitors. They purify air and provide critical wildlife habitat. They reduce flooding by storing water during spring snowmelt and in heavy rain events. They support rural economies, recreation and they store carbon. Like any valuable asset, they require thoughtful stewardship and careful management to reach their full potential.

Forests are part of a natural climate solution. Most scientists agree that keeping forests as forests is one of the best global strategies for battling climate change. One forest management strategy that is desirable in a warming climate is to increase the diversity of species and ages of trees within a forest. Achieving these goals often means thinning out less desirable trees (“low-grade wood”) and leaving the more desirable trees. But, to be sustainable, such forest management requires markets for the low-grade wood. The proposed Dartmouth facility would provide such a market.

Wood harvested from a sustainably managed forest is renewable in a way and in a time frame that conventional fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are not. Over time, the carbon dioxide emitted from wood burned for energy will be recaptured by new growth in a sustainably managed forest. That recapture takes time. It is an imperfect solution if instant gratification is the yardstick to measure success, but it has clear long-term advantages over burning fossil fuels, which has no such natural carbon re-capture mechanism.

A recent study completed for Dartmouth by Innovative Natural Resource Solutions of Antrim, N.H., documents that a more than adequate supply of low-grade wood exists within the Upper Valley region to supply the proposed wood burning facility over the next 30 years. This supply of fuel can be procured from sustainably managed forests in the region. In fact, the proposed Dartmouth facility would use only 3 percent of the available supply.

Recent developments in combustion technology make it possible for Dartmouth to build a facility to burn wood with an efficiency rating much higher than that of a conventional wood stove. The combustion technology that Dartmouth intends to use would also reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter over those of the current system that burns No. 6 fuel oil.

Trees by their mass are 50 percent carbon, so burning wood does release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the re-growing forest takes that carbon dioxide back through photosynthesis over time. The question for Dartmouth is whether the overall benefits of such an investment exceed the cost of these carbon dioxide emissions. A responsible assessment of all credits and debits is critical for this balance sheet. In a world where it is acceptable for large emitters of carbon dioxide to purchase carbon credits through the state of California to offset their own carbon emissions, in essence using the carbon storage capacity of forests in New England and elsewhere to compensate for their emissions in California, it should be acceptable for Dartmouth to use home-grown wood to meet its thermal energy needs while allowing forests to continue to provide multiple benefits in the face of climate change.

From the Forest Society’s perspective, we need to find a way to pay for the thoughtful stewardship and careful management that will conserve our forest assets now and for future generations. Without some thoughtful investment in good forest management, our ability to provide the many benefits of healthy forests to all of our citizens will be diminished. Wise use of forest resources to meet current and future needs requires that we measure all the assets and liabilities of such use. The project managers at Dartmouth have done a good job of measuring the trade-offs.

Will Abbott is the vice president of policy and reservation stewardship at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

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