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February 20, 2009

National Education Blogger Covers Middlebury Biomass Plant

Vermont media outlets are issuing positive reports this week on Middlebury College's new biomass plant. According to a press release on Middlebury's website, the $12 million biomass plant will burn about 20,000 tons of locally-sourced wood chips per year. College administrators expect the glass-encased plant, which sits in the center of campus, to save an annual 1 million gallons of #6 fuel oil and cut 12,500 metric tons of CO2 emissions — about 40 percent of the college's 2006 metric-ton output.

The facility is part of a broader campaign. In 2004, the college's board of trustees resolved to reduce carbon emissions to 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Three years later, Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz announced the college would be a "carbon neutral institution" by 2016, meaning its net CO2 output would drop to zilch. That same year, Grist, a leading environmental news website, ranked Middlebury the second greenest college/university in the world.

Not every reporter is totally smitten. In October 2006, as Middlebury was building its new biomass plant, the Chronicle of Higher Education, a national education magazine, published a short article titled, "Truth in Advertising: Middlebury College's Biomass Plant." In the article, reporter Richard Monastersky suggested that chopping extra wood could "raise the net greenhouse-gas emissions in the area," at least until Middlebury started harvesting from its experimental plot of Willow trees.

"With the current high cost of oil, biomass plants have become popular, especially because utilities can qualify for renewable energy credits when operating them," Monastersky added. "But it is unclear whether biomass is truly sustainable because the wood used in such plants can take many years to grow."

The Burlington Free Press reports today that Middlebury is still "testing the feasibility" of its 9-acre Willow patch.

What's the Chronicle's take on the college's biomass plans?

In a blog post yesterday titled, "Striving for Climate Neutrality, Middlebury College Fires Up Its Biomass Plant," Chronicle reporter Scott Carlson claimed "sustainability advocates and defenders of Middlebury" have had "chips on their shoulders" ever since the Chronicle's 2006 piece. But in spite of that opening salvo, he didn't stoke the flames with any new critiques.

After that, a spokesperson for Colgate University commented that Colgate already burns 20,000 tons of wood chips annually, and that, like Middlebury, the upstate New York institution is hoping to harvest experimental willows.

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