Dartmouth to Seek Proposals for Biomass Plant

  • The smoke stack of the Dartmouth College steam cogeneration plant is seen from East Wheelock Street in Hanover, N.H.Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Four boilers in the plant supply the steam heat the college campus after excess steam pressure is used to drive turbines that generate about 40 percent of the annual electricity used on campus. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • A fuel truck driver who declined to give his name checks on a pump after delivering a load of 8,500 gallons of number six heating oil to the tanks at Dartmouth College's steam cogeneration plant Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The plant switched from coal as a fuel to the thick molasses like number six heating oil in 1958. The driver said that on a cold winter day as many as five truck loads of fuel would be delivered to the plant. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2019 12:27:46 PM
Modified: 1/18/2019 4:43:05 PM

Hanover — Dartmouth College officials say a planned $200 million investment in biomass power and hot water heating will cut carbon emissions and help the school reach its green energy goals.

The college formally announced plans on Thursday to build the new wood-burning power plant and convert existing steam pipes in more than 110 buildings on campus. Dartmouth currently gets its steam heat and some of its electricity from an oil-burning power plant in the heart of downtown Hanover that was built more than 120 years ago and was converted to oil from coal in 1958.

The changes, which would require town site plan approval, are expected to be completed in late 2025 and would improve Dartmouth’s heating efficiency by 20 percent almost immediately, said Executive Vice President Rick Mills, who also mentioned the project in a public town hall forum the day before.

“Making those changes would help us both meet our goals for renewability, improve our efficiency and actually put us on a path toward a future where maybe we don’t actually have to burn anything to heat the campus,” Mills told 100 people at the event the Spaulding Auditorium on Wednesday.

During the same event, he also unveiled proposals to expand graduate housing to Lebanon, with a potential project near Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in the works.

The new power plant would be built and operated by a private company in partnership with Dartmouth, the college said. That firm would finance construction of the plant and run it for the next 30 years, when officials hope to again explore Dartmouth’s energy options.

Dartmouth has not publicly identified proposed sites for the new plant and said a location will be chosen this spring. Mills said the use of a hot water system will require it be situated relatively close to campus. The facility also requires more space than the oil-burning plant because of the amount of wood chips or other biomass that would have to be trucked in and stored.

“In some ways, the biggest thing here is moving from a steam distribution system on campus to a hot water distribution system,” Mills said in a phone interview on Thursday.

The conversion leaves the door open to adopt more green options, he said. As technology improves, he said, converting to a solar or thermal facility could be possible to someday.

“I think all of us imagine that over the longer term, the future for energy is a non-combustion future,” Mills said. “The technology for our climate just isn’t here yet.”

The college’s push to reduce its reliance on No. 6 heating oil is an “excellent idea,” said Andrew Friedland, a professor of environmental studies.

However, biomass comes with its own set of problems, he warned, citing research that shows burning wood chips can produce roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide as coal.

But using sustainable practices, the regrowth of trees could help mitigate that pollution by filtering carbon dioxide, Friedland said. Biomass also supports the local forestry industry, he added.

“I suppose that wood chips are the least-worst of the options and maybe even a little bit better than that,” said Friedland, who was co-chairman of the Dartmouth College Sustainability Task Force.

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin also said biomass is considered less environmentally friendly than solar or wind power, but she stressed that the college’s energy demands are too big for either of those alternatives on their own.

She applauded Dartmouth’s plans as contributing to Hanover’s goal of obtaining 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, with a similar goal for heat and transportation set for 2050.

She also expressed relief that the college wouldn’t become a customer of Liberty Utilities’ proposed natural gas pipeline, which was approved by state regulators last March but hasn’t yet sought local approval needed to begin construction.

Under the college’s plan, what it called “waste-wood material” produced from forestry and timber operations would be purchased locally from “sustainable” industries, the release said.

However, the fuel will not come from Second College Grant, a 27,000-acre tract of forest owned by the college near Errol, N.H., according to Mills. Although there are active timber harvests in the grant, delivering materials from the Maine state line to Hanover would produce too many greenhouse gases, Mills said.

The new plant also will be outfitted to burn liquid biofuel, such as vegetable oil and animal fat, when wood cannot meet the college’s needs. Those are expected to occur most frequently during the coldest days of winter.

The plans will mean an end for Dartmouth’s power plant east of the Hood Museum of Art in downtown Hanover, including its 175-foot brick smokestack on the 1-acre site. The property, in use since the late 1890s, would be decommissioned and “repurposed” for other uses, Dartmouth said.

The 16 college employees at the power plant would be offered new jobs with the private biomass company, Dartmouth said.

“There is no current plan for the new plant to be where the old one was,” Mills said. “I think one of the benefits we see of this project is it actually reclaims that downtown building space for alternative uses.”

The conversion to biomass heat means Dartmouth would stop burning some 3.5 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil a year, which has dropped from 5 million gallons in 2010 as the college has made efficiency improvements, including in how it provides air conditioning.

Graduate Housing

Dartmouth also has announced early plans to build more graduate housing as part of an effort to help older students find affordable rentals in a difficult market.

“There’s a shortage of supply of reasonably priced, reasonable-quality, apartment-style units for that market niche,” said Mills, who explained that two-thirds of graduate students live off campus and often have to compete for housing with young families and professionals.

While the college is considering expanding housing at Sachem Village, a townhouse complex near Route 10 in Lebanon, it’s also looking into a potential project at 401 Mount Support Road in Lebanon.

The roughly 53-acre lot is less than a mile to the front doors of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Centerra Marketplace.

Joshua Keniston, Mills’ chief of staff, said the college is planning to find a private partner for the project this spring, and is looking to potentially build hundreds of units on the site.

Asked whether the hospital is involved in the project, Keniston said there have been discussions between the two, although no formal partnership has yet formed.

“I think we’ll anticipate continuing those conversations over the coming months to really think about how we can partner with them to serve our graduate students, serve their employee needs and ultimately serve the Upper Valley more holistically,” Keniston said.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock has said it will need an additional 300 employees to staff a $130 million expansion planned for the hospital, and previously has raised concerns about available housing for its workers.

“We will be doing something to create more workforce housing,” D-H CEO Joanne Conroy said after announcing the expansion in December. At the time, she hoped a potential housing project could be close enough to DHMC that employees wouldn’t have to drive to work.

D-H spokesman Rick Adams said on Thursday that the health care system is talking to several parties on how to best address housing, but said the hospital hasn’t developed “anything specific to share about projects or locations.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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