Dartmouth College Reconsiders Biomass Plant

Sep 25, 2019

Credit Allison Quantz for NHPR

Dartmouth College says it’s reassessing its plan to build a wood burning heating plant that would replace its current oil-burning plant.

The biomass plant was one piece of a $200 million project that is part of Dartmouth's plan to reduce its emissions.

The other part, which the college still plans on moving forward with, is converting its steam heating system to a more efficient hot-water system.

Earlier this summer, prominent scientist alumni penned a letter opposing the plant, saying the college should look into a way to generate heat without burning anything.

Getting that feedback from climate researchers and community members made Dartmouth decide to take another look at the plant, says Josh Keniston, the vice president for institutional projects at Dartmouth.

Keniston says the biomass plant was intended as a bridge until the college could find a way to switch to a non-combustion energy source.

But through this upcoming review process, he says, the college may find that there’s a path to get to non-combustion more quickly than having the biomass plant online for 30 years.

Even as the college reassess its biomass plant, it is “very unlikely that we would be able to implement a 100% non-combustion solution” right away.

“The question that we're looking at is does it make sense to build a brand new facility or is there a way to leverage our current facility in a different way?" he said.

One option could be to keep the current fuel burning plant and make campus more efficient so less oil is used. Keniston says that some heating demands could be met by incorporating other technologies like solar or heat pumps with the current energy system.

The College is also taking into consideration the timeframe the UN has put forward to address the effects of climate change.

The next 10 years are critical to make changes, Keniston says. That time frame has also contributed to Dartmouth rethinking its wood burning plant.  

“We’ve always understood that biomass has a period of time before you can pay back that carbon debt,” Keniston said.

Trees capture and store carbon dioxide, which contributes to the greenhouse gas effect.  

Some scientific models show that the length of time it would take to get that carbon back into the forest can vary from a few years to decades, and that also depends on a number of factors.

“In which case, a fuel that has the potential to recapture carbon, but maybe on day one is actually an increase in carbon, you look at that differently, when the time frame to solve the problem is different,” he said.

Dartmouth has committed to cutting its greenhouse gases in half by 2025.