College Looks to Develop Sustainable Biomass

College campuses across the United States are taking the lead in the transition to a clean energy future, thanks both to the part they play as developers of new technologies and ideas, and to the activities of students themselves who are determined to create a more sustainable world.

But as more and more colleges and universities move to reduce their reliance on coal and other dirty fossil fuels, some have found themselves in a quandary over what cleaner fuel makes the best alternative.  Will colleges that once relied on coal power merely switch to slightly cleaner natural gas, or can they go all the way and transition to truly renewable energy?

A technology being used at Middlebury College in Vermont could eventually help colleges, utilities, and other institutions make the jump to clean energy more easily.  Middlebury has some of the most ambitious climate and energy goals of any college in the country, and aims to be carbon neutral by 2016.  Among other efficiency and clean energy goals designed to help the college meet that target, Middlebury is developing a biomass gasification plant with the hope of using sustainably harvested local resources to generate a sustained clean energy supply.

In recent years, biomass plants have been strongly criticized by some environmental groups because they come with a variety of problems of their own.  Some types of biomass incinerators can produce as much or more local pollution than coal-burning boilers, contributing to poor air quality and health problems for nearby communities.  And if biomass boilers are supplied with wood harvested in an unsustainable manner, they contribute to deforestation.

The Middlebury biomass gasification system addresses at least some of these problems.  In contrast to a conventional wood stove, gasification involves burning woody material at extremely high temperatures to generate steam.  This steam can then be used for heating buildings and water.  The system is much more efficient than a wood stove, and other features help reduce particulate matter and other harmful emissions.  According to some reports, filters in the system can ensure more than 99% of particulate emissions are removed.

In addition to using energy as efficiently as possible and minimizing particulate emissions, Middlebury has a stated goal of obtaining all wood chips for the plant from sustainably managed forests within seventy-five miles of the college.  This would mean minimizing the degree to which the system contributes to deforestation and impacts biodiversity.

If enough wood can be provided by sustainable sources, it will mean the biomass facility isn’t simply replacing fossil fuel combustion with deforestation that also contributes to climate change.  The even larger question, of course, is whether a sustainable biomass model developed at a single college can be applied to other projects throughout the country.  The more energy you are trying to produce, the harder it is to make sure all of it comes from sustainable sources.

For this reason biomass will never be the silver bullet that fixes the US addiction to dirty fuels.  However experiments now moving forward at college campuses could help energy providers throughout the country build biomass systems that are as clean and sustainable as possible.  Such biomass plants could play an important part in the new clean energy economy.

For biomass to become a viable replacement for fossil fuels that doesn’t create a host of new environmental problems of its own, biomass facilities must be designed to run on a locally grown food supply, minimize particulate air emissions, and of course be as efficient as possible.

With momentum building for a clean energy revolution, these goals have never been more important.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/sergio94707/3236183142/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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