Forum, Aug. 9: The key to biomass is balancing use and replenishment

Published: 8/8/2019 10:00:18 PM
Modified: 8/8/2019 10:00:08 PM
The key to biomass is balancing use and replenishment

The land my family has owned in Vermont for three generations has been a Certified Tree Farm for more than 50 years.

A registered forester manages the harvesting of trees sustainably so that, over time, the value of the standing timber has increased. Trees that are cut are sold to local mills. In addition to the forester and her staff, loggers, truckers, millworkers and small excavation contractors all receive income as they play their part in moving trees from the forest to the market. This keeps the small town’s economy viable. Invasive species and insects are monitored and controlled. Coverts (woodland habitats) are created and streams are protected promoting a proliferation of sylvan and aquatic wildlife.

A healthy forest is important to the well-being of our planet. I am confident the Dartmouth Sustainability Office will insist that the kinds of practices my family follows will be part of its plan as the college phases-in biomass and transitions from bunker fuel to ever cleaner energy sources as they become available.

In Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown, I learned biomass is a viable energy producer so long as “use and replenishment remain in balance.”

I support Dartmouth’s long-range carbon reduction plan that includes building a biomass heating plant with a phase-out as solar and wind generation are brought into the picture.



College abandoning its responsibility to lead

As did dozens of others, I attended the July 31 presentation by Dartmouth College about siting its proposed biomass plant. As a community member and alum, I wanted to better understand the college’s plans for its energy future.

I left with two impressions. First, a multiyear review by a renowned investment bank selected a technology that Eleazar Wheelock would have used in 1769: burning wood to heat a building. Second, attendees did not accept this self-described “imperfect” solution as viable in any way. The pushback came on grounds of health, deforestation, siting, technology, traffic, analytic methodology (which the college refuses to make public), and the town of Hanover’s “Ready for 100” energy goals. But as an alum, the pushback that cut most deeply was the charge that the college’s energy path forward lacked vision.

If the decision is made to use wood to heat 119 buildings, it is no great leap to foresee another NIMBY — not in my back yard — fight. And if past is prologue, the college will muster its financial, political and legal muscle to prevail. But in prevailing, I fear that the college will have knowingly forsaken its responsibility to lead and instead settled for burnishing its reputation for cram-down projects.

Given the vigorous and what I envision will be mounting opposition, the college should consider pressing the stop button for this “imperfect” project. Dartmouth 250 and The Call to Lead must be more than a free concert on the Green.

I encourage all to attend the next presentation about the college’s energy future scheduled for Tuesday, at 6 p.m., in Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall.

Vox clamantis in deserto.



Dartmouth should use electric heat pumps

Dartmouth College’s biomass proposal is opposed by many. Electric heat is a CO2-emission-free alternative. A toaster or electric space heater is an example of resistance heating, but modern heat pump technology uses only a third of that energy.

Climate strategy experts recommend decarbonizing the grid and electrifying everything — transportation, buildings, industry, etc. Examples are Tesla autos and electric buses Advance Transit is testing. They will be CO2-free as the grid becomes fossil-fuel-free.

Like air conditioners in reverse, heat pumps can transfer heat from ground, water or air to building interiors.

Dartmouth can re-heat itself, building by building, adding electric heat pumps, then removing its oil-fired central heating plant.

Ball State University’s geothermal energy system ( is a good example of how to do this.



Biomass heating plant is not the solution

Dartmouth College is planning a biomass plant. I contend we need to stop it.

Biomass is a false green solution. Dartmouth’s biomass plant will require in one day as much wood as it takes to heat 75 houses (at one cord per house per year.) That is, truckloads of wood coming through town daily.

Where is that wood coming from? We don’t know. Dartmouth did a study but will not release it.

Notice the new construction at Dartmouth? Do you see one solar panel?

I suggest Dartmouth spend the millions dedicated to this biomass system on conservation and truly renewable energy, such as solar panels, heat pumps and underground heat storage and distribution.

Dartmouth is preparing the leaders of our country and the world. How is Dartmouth leading as a steward of our environment? Bill Moomaw, professor emeritus of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, says Dartmouth’s biomass plant will cause severe air pollution and increase global warming. Dartmouth must plan based on the climate.

We need more trees and we need to leave trees to grow for hundreds of years. That is the only chance we have to sequester carbon.

We humans have made such a mess of our planet that every institution has the responsibility not only to make things better but to put in place systems that help restore our planet.

Hanover has made a commitment to 100% renewable. Don’t be sold a false solution with Dartmouth’s biomass plant.

Please come to the next forum on the biomass plant on Tuesday, at 6 p.m., in Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall.

In addition, anyone concerned about the project is invited to attend a meeting on Aug. 19, at 7 p.m., at the Howe Library in Hanover. And please watch the movie Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?



There’s carbon, and then there’s carbon

In reference to the article “Scientists: Biomass is a bad idea” (July 26): I must with some regret differ with the conclusions of my contemporary member of the old Dartmouth Ecological Society of the 1950s, the eminent George Woodwell and his co-authors.

As a geologist with interests in the origins of rocks on the Earth and moon, I am compelled to remind us all about the varying sources of carbon that we are discussing.

Biomass carbon, as Woodwell knows full well, is the stuff we have breathed all our lives but got captured by the trees we have admired all our lives.

It is, to coin a phrase, recycled carbon. On a scale of our lifetime. The woods will grow again, absorbing our carbon all over again.

The carbon of fuel oil, however, has been in locked storage for far longer than the existence of our lives on Earth.

Yes, it too is recycled, but on geologic time, which is not the same as our time. It newly poisons our atmosphere.

I favor the transfer to biomass, but do worry about getting it to the furnaces. Time to think again about an aerial tram line from the railroad in Lewiston to Hanover?


Swiftwater, N.H.

Make project feedback accessible to all

The recent public forum on Dartmouth College’s biomass project elicited many comments and questions, some quite technical, not readily understood in an oral presentation.

These should be made available in printed versions.

Although the feedback box for written submissions on the biomass project website ( may be helpful, it is not sufficient.

That box affords a private communication from each sender to Dartmouth. I urge Dartmouth to provide a website so that members of the community can read the comments of all others, as well as responses from Dartmouth. Long submissions can be accommodated by displaying only the beginning, with a “more” link.




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