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Colleges wean off fossil fuels

Alternative energy sources help power campuses across US.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2009

Wood heat: Four augers feed wood chips into the gasifier, which fires the boiler to help power the Vermont campus.

Courtesy of Brett Simison/Middlebury College


Middlebury, Vt.

With the sun shining on a rare, warm winter day, Thomas Corbin stands in a snow-covered field of willow shrubs. The stalks, some more than 10 feet high, jab like slender fingers into the blue sky.

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If all goes well, in two years, a modified corn harvester will chop through these fast-growing shrubs. The crop will then be hauled a mile or so to feed the new biomass gasification plant at Middlebury College, where Mr. Corbin is assistant treasurer. The college hopes that the willow will provide 12,000 tons of fuel each year, about half of the fuel the facility is expected to burn.

The Middlebury plant, which opened earlier this year, provides both heat and electricity to the campus. It runs on wood chips that come from within a 75-mile radius of this campus of 2,400 students in northwestern Vermont. The plant, which cost about $12 million to build, will replace about half of the 2 million gallons of heating oil the school burns annually and reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 12,500 metric tons per year.

More and more, colleges and universities are not only teaching about environmental issues, they’re “walking the walk” by changing they way they operate. In December 2006, 12 college and university presidents joined together to form the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. They pledged to set target dates for becoming carbon neutral – reducing the carbon emissions from their heating, cooling, electrical, and transportation needs as much as possible and then buying carbon offsets to complete the task. A little more than two years later, 614 colleges and universities in all 50 states have made the commitment. They represent about one-third of the student body at colleges and universities in the United States.

Interest on college campuses in taking steps to slow climate change have “exploded,” says Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, a Boston-based nonprofit group that works with colleges on environmental and sustainability issues.
“It’s exponential growth. It’s terrific.”

Middlebury is hardly alone among colleges in trying to wean itself off fossil fuels:

•In Bar Harbor, Maine, the College of the Atlantic recently fired up a wood-pellet boiler that generates heat for three student residences and the campus center, about one-fifth of the campus. The pellets are made of sawdust from a lumber mill in northern Maine. The college, which has signed the presidents’ commitment, has pledged to rely solely on energy from renewable sources by 2015.

•At the University of Minnesota, Morris, a new biomass gasification facility is being tested that will use corn stover and other local agricultural waste to replace as much as 80 percent of the campus’s heating and cooling needs now generated by fossil fuels, mainly natural gas.

“We can find enough biomass within 20 miles to easily supply our needs,” says Joel Tallaksen, the biomass project coordinator at Minnesota-Morris. “In our area there’s just not enough wood” to burn wood chips or pellets, he says. But there is a plentiful supply of corn stalks, wheat straw, and soybean residue. The university will need about 4,000 to 5,000 acres of material per year, and the surrounding county has about 150,000 acres of corn crop alone, he says.