Column: Biomass plant would cut college’s carbon footprint

For the Valley News
Published: 8/27/2019 12:48:46 PM
Modified: 8/27/2019 12:48:45 PM

It is time someone spoke in support of Dartmouth College’s “Green Energy Project,” which would include a new biomass plant and hot water heating system.

The project has become a lightning rod for people who are concerned about the truck traffic, particulate emissions and climate impacts of the proposed project, as well as its impacts on New Hampshire and Vermont forests. The traffic and emissions issues can be addressed through optimal project design, and it is in everyone’s interest to see this done. Concerns about its impact on climate change and our forests are not based upon the careful analysis that has already been done on this subject.

The Manomet Study, produced by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in 2010, is a detailed analysis of the carbon impacts of using wood for energy in Massachusetts. The study concluded that modern biomass heat-only and co-generation plants are effective in achieving carbon neutrality within a roughly 25-year time horizon, whereas electricity generation from biomass requires about 100 years to reach carbon neutrality due to the low efficiency of biomass generating plants as compared with modern combined cycle gas-fired power plants.

Modern industrial-scale wood-fired boilers are typically 75% to 85% efficient, which is comparable to oil-fired boilers, whereas small wood-fired power stations are typically 20% to 25% efficient, as compared with 40% to 50% efficiency for large fossil fuel power stations. It should be noted that the Dartmouth project is also less than one-tenth the size, as measured by its wood consumption, of the smallest commercial biomass power station.

The proposed biomass plant will achieve a greatly reduced carbon footprint as compared with the current practice of burning No. 6 heating oil, and distributing heat with steam. The speed with which carbon neutrality is achieved depends, as the Manomet Study carefully analyzed, upon the care with which the forests are managed during regeneration. The Dartmouth Green Energy Project should sponsor public meetings in which forestry experts explain how improved forest management can increase carbon sequestration and what costs would be incurred and benefits, including jobs, generated as a result of improved forest management.

Opponents of the project cite the use of solar energy and ground-coupled heat pumps as alternatives to the proposed biomass plant. They say Dartmouth can afford these options, which were determined to be five times as expensive as the current proposal. What they fail to acknowledge is that all options for reducing global warming require substantial investments in energy.

The first measure of the energy investment required by a particular option is its cost. If solar energy and ground-coupled heat pumps are many times more expensive than the current plan, then it is very likely that the carbon emissions from implementing these options are also greater, especially during construction. Just because Dartmouth College could afford to spend much more than the estimated $200 million cost of this project does not necessarily mean that the alternative would have a smaller carbon footprint.

Dartmouth has made an honest attempt to identify the most feasible solution for reducing its carbon footprint given the choice of technologies that are currently available. The college needs to be open with the critics in explaining what other options were considered and why they were rejected.

To build public support for the project, it should also quantify the impacts of the current situation in terms of the carbon and other potentially hazardous emissions from burning No. 6 oil so as to explain why the project is necessary. These impacts can be compared with much smaller emissions from the chipping and transportation of wood to the new biomass plant and the long-term economic benefits of using locally harvested biomass.

Carl Bielenberg, of Bradford, Vt., is the chief executive officer and chief technology officer of Village Industrial Power Inc., a Bradford-based startup company working to develop energy solutions for rural businesses and communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Its first product is a biomass-fueled steam power plant that uses agricultural waste to produce heat and power for crop processing. He is also the founder of The Better World Workshop.

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