Dartmouth reconsidering whether to build biomass plant

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2019 6:54:01 PM
Modified: 9/24/2019 10:07:30 PM

HANOVER — Dartmouth College is reconsidering whether to rely on a proposed biomass plant to heat its campus after prominent alumni environmentalists said burning wood chips contributes to global warming.

“At this point, biomass is still on the table, but we are going through a process to kind of confirm if that makes sense,” Josh Keniston, the Dartmouth’s vice president for institutional projects, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Keniston oversees the so-called Dartmouth Green Energy Project, the college’s $200 million plan to switch from steam heat to a hot-water heating system and to replace its 121-year-old oil-burning power plant in downtown Hanover.

He said the college is looking at “non-combustion” energy sources as an alternative to the proposed biomass plant.

Keniston ruled out natural gas and nuclear power and said Dartmouth was assessing such energy sources as solar power, wind turbines, hydropower, and ground-source and air-source heat pumps.

“It’s essentially anything that doesn’t combust, that doesn’t have a fuel you are burning,” Keniston said. “So it’s a lot of electric-based technology.”

Dartmouth signaled it was re-assessing the biomass proposal in an announcement following the fall meeting of its Board of Trustees over the weekend in Hanover. The announcement expressed support for the green energy project, noting it is expected to improve heating efficiency by 20% in replacing steam pipes in more than 100 buildings across its campus.

But, notably, the announce did not mention biomass, instead saying, “The board will remain engaged as the administration team continues to analyze the project’s energy-generation source.”

Keniston, who helped brief trustees on Saturday, said, “Part of what we are looking at is the technology changes quickly, and we are evaluating if any of the recent changes in either the technology or understanding of how various technologies impact climate change, if any of those would suggest a different path.”

The shift also followed impassioned calls, letters and community forums about the biomass project, with some Dartmouth alumni and Upper Valley residents contending that rather than leading on renewable energy, the college would be adding to global warming if it burned wood chips and released that carbon from trees.

A group of prominent scientists and environmentalists also have said burning wood chips could “substantially” increase the college’s carbon emissions. Some others have backed the proposal, saying it will help provide a market for low-grade wood in New Hampshire forests and also benefit the local economy.

George Woodwell, a 1950 Dartmouth graduate who has helped lead the opposition to the biomass plant, organized a meeting with prominent scientists for Keniston and Rosi Kerr, Dartmouth’s director of sustainability, last month at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Woodwell founded the acclaimed environmental research institute on Cape Cod and was also a founding trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a founder of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Woodwell on Tuesday said he was “delighted” to learn that Dartmouth was considering other options to biomass.

“The college has a big challenge in that they have more than 100 buildings that they have to deal with. It’s entirely possible to have a program that phases out combustion and works in alternative sources — ground source heat pumps and air source heat pumps and improved efficiency in the use of energy — in all phases, and the college ought to be doing that and should be a leader, in fact,” Woodwell said.

Dartmouth has identified three sites for a possible biomass plant: on a hill behind the Dewey parking lot; land by Hanover Country Club’s maintenance facility garage off Route 10; and the former home of Trumbull-Nelson Construction Co. on Route 120. Keniston said a decision on the designated site, which was planned for this month, has been pushed off as Dartmouth re-evaluates its energy source.

He also declined to say if Dartmouth, which owns large tracts of land in northern New Hampshire, might consider building solar arrays or wind turbines there.

“It’s too early for us to know,” Keniston said. “I think the work we are doing now is to see what the options would be.”

Woodwell said it was conceivable that Dartmouth could purchase an interest in a large wind-turbine project not on college land, and “own a piece of it.”

“The whole transition to renewables is a transition to electric power; there’s not much question,” Woodwell said. “It will come from a number of sources.”

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.

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