Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Hills Are Alive..." or are they

Will wood chips fuel program for Middlebury College denude the hills of Vermont?

MIDDLEBURY, VT USA — Middlebury College used to heat its buildings with oil, then switched to wood chips. Now it has planted a sustainable and relatively cheap fuel source — willow shrubs — that could help cut demand on the state's forests.

With a 9-acre patch of the fast-growing willows, the college is conducting a biomass energy experiment that seeks to answer the question: What if wood chip-burning heat systems lead to the deforestation of Vermont?

Willows, which grow faster than other trees and branch out when pruned, may be the answer — and may be a resource for other cold-weather states, too. So Jack Byrne, director of sustainability for the college, and business services director Tom Corbin have turned into farmers of sorts, planting tightly packed rows of willows in a field west of Middlebury's campus.

The question of biomass fuel supply has taken on new urgency for the college since last winter, when the exclusive liberal arts school opened a new boiler system that heats about 100 campus buildings, running turbines that meet about a fifth of the college's electrical demand.

The system, in a glass-fronted building in the middle of campus, runs on a "gasifier," heating wood chips and extracting carbon monoxide and other gases that are then burned in the boiler.

"We use our buildings to teach as much as we can," Byrne said. "We wanted students to be aware that when they turn up a thermostat, there's a connection to a tree getting cut down."

The college now buys 20,000 tons of wood chips a year, mainly from loggers operating within 75 miles. That will provide about half the heat used by the campus — the rest comes from heating oil — and reduce Middlebury's $1.5 million annual oil bill by about $700,000, Byrne said.

Byrne said the willow-growing experiment is aimed at a potential problem.

The concern is that if other colleges, institutions, businesses and homeowners follow Middlebury's lead and begin relying on forests for fuel, Vermont's wooded hillsides — already a source of lumber and firewood — could end up being depleted.


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