College holds biomass plant forum, responds to criticism

by Kristine Jiwoo Ahn | 8/2/19 2:05am

by Divya Kopalle / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

At a forum originally intended to seek feedback on potential locations for the College’s proposed biomass heating facility, discussion driven by attendees largely centered on the facility’s potential environmental impacts. On Wednesday evening, vice president for institutional projects Joshua Keniston led the presentation with approximately 70 community members and Upper Valley residents in attendance at Filene Auditorium. 

Much of the concerns raised by audience members centered around potential negative environmental impacts of the facility, some of which were also expressed by three climate scientists and Dartmouth alumni in a July 15 letter to the College. In the letter, William Schlesinger ’72, John Sterman ’77 and George Woodwell ’50 argue that the proposed heating plant would increase the College’s carbon emissions rather than make it more sustainable. According to Keniston, while Dartmouth recognizes the concerns raised within the letter and by residents at the forum, the plant is the most feasible option when all factors are considered.

At the forum, Keniston focused on the details of the plant, which is a part of the College’s $200 million green energy initiative and will change the College’s heat production and delivery processes, transitioning from a steam system to hot water distribution. The biomass plant will replace the current heating plant that uses No. 6 fuel oil, a high-viscosity oil used mostly in commercial and industrial heating.

According to Keniston, the first phase in the College’s process involved identifying alternatives to No. 6 fuel oil, including No. 2 fuel oil, natural gas, biodiesel, biomass, heat pumps, geothermal energy and solar energy. The College then performed cost-benefit analysis for each option. According to Keniston, apart from biomass, none of the options checked all the boxes. For example, heat pumps, geothermal and solar energy did not meet the threshold in terms of cost and reliability due to cold winters and the scale of Dartmouth’s campus, he said.

“We have millions of dollars worth of research going in some of our buildings,” Keniston said. “If we don’t have heat for even an hour or two, the consequences are big.”

The other strategies would require five times the capital cost and three times the operating costs of business as usual, according to Keniston.

Once the College determined that it would pursue biomass, the second stage was to conduct feasibility analysis of the project. Keniston said that based on the information from the analysis the College is now in the phase of site selection.

The three potential site locations, proposed by the College in May, include the south end of the Hanover Country Club’s golf course, the hill behind the Dewey parking lot and a property the College owns two miles south of campus on Route 120.

Site selection considerations include traffic, acquisition cost, distance to campus, supporting infrastructure and access to utilities, according to Keniston.

While revisions to the site can be made based on feedback and discussion with outside experts and Upper Valley residents, Keniston said the College would like to select a site by the fall.

Keniston also outlined the general facility guidelines of the plant ­— four or more acres for plant and fuel storage with a height estimated between 50 and 70 feet above grade will be needed. Truck access will vary by season between three to 15 trucks per day. The current average annual truck traffic for fuel oil is two to three trucks per day.

The project will be developed and operated through a partnership with a private company. The College has found four teams so far and anticipates another nine to 12 months of work before selecting a final partner, Keniston said.

During the question and answer period, audience members raised questions about environmental damage, truck traffic and consequences of carbon emissions from biomass, especially particulate matter, on human health.

The forum also comes weeks after the letter sent by Schlesinger, Sterman and Woodwell urged the administration to abandon its plans to build the biomass heating plant. Schlesinger is the emeritus dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Sterman is a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of its sustainability initiative, and Woodwell is the founder of Woods Hole Research Center, a global environmental research institute.

The three wrote that burning wood would increase the College’s carbon emissions and worsen climate change because the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning wood is greater than that from burning fuel oil.

“It’s just basic physics,” Sterman said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “The carbon content of wood is 25 percent greater than fuel oil, and there’s nothing you can do about that.”

Sterman said that there are other ways for the College to execute similar retrofits and construction projects but at a reasonable cost and with increased energy efficiency, as energy-efficient buildings have a high return on investment and short payback time.

Sterman added that it is now possible to design buildings that use very little or even zero net energy, referring to the MIT Sloan School of Management building as an example. The increase in up-front costs for the building’s sustainability features was only approximately 0.25 percent of the project cost, according to Sterman. He said that energy savings offset the implementation cost, which is typical of highly sustainable green buildings because they require much less energy and the cost of electrical infrastructure is dramatically lower.

Both Sterman and Schlesinger said that the College should look at different options. 

“As much as everyone wants to get off the fuel oil, doing that in a way that actually worsens our global emissions — that’s not the right thing to do,” Sterman said. “If you were sick and went to the doctor, the number one principle should be to do no harm. That’s exactly what this proposal does.”

In response to the College’s statement that it will source most or all of the wood from residuals and waste, not by cutting down whole trees, Sterman said that the difference does not matter. 

“The plain fact of the matter is burning wood now, whatever the source, puts all that carbon into the air right now, and any induced growth happens much later,” Sterman said.

Sterman also said that residuals play an important role in forest systems and serve as a crucial source of carbon that gets stored in the soil.

Schlesinger said in an interview with The Dartmouth that he was “underwhelmed” by the College’s proposal and that the College should suspend this project and take into consideration external arguments. Additionally, he suggested that it would be better for the College to gradually phase down its use of oil rather than completely convert to a wood-burning plant. He also called for the College to publish its analysis and calculations. 

“I would like to see the numbers,” Schlesinger said. “I haven’t seen anybody present the actual costs. I think the cost of solar or wind is widely acknowledged to be lower than coal-fired plants, so I can see the College putting up a wind or solar sensor farm or array coupled with battery storage.”

In an interview before the forum, Keniston said that the College would ensure that the biomass it procures is harvested in a way that encourages tree growth.

“Biomass is complex and there is a range of ways to deploy it; not all of it is good,” Keniston said. “We want to take an approach that will minimize the consequences.”

Furthermore, Keniston said that switching to biomass would decrease the College’s carbon dioxide emissions, based on current EPA standards.

Rosi Kerr, director of sustainability at the College, said that scientists develop different models with varying underlying assumptions. She said that there are debates about the proper way to model carbon flows in forest systems and that present data is imperfect and evolving.

Kerr also said that while the emission of carbon is one variable, there are a lot of other considerations such as financial costs, supply chain of oil, non-carbon-based environmental damages in places where oil is being extracted and the impact on the livelihood of people in those areas.

“Zero combustion would be ideal, but ideal is not where we’re starting from,” Kerr said. “The question is how we get from here to where we want to be. The theoretical and actual are constrained by different things.”

Kerr said that it would not be feasible for all of Dartmouth’s existing buildings to adopt low-combustion technologies.

“Yes, we should be creating buildings that are highly efficient and the capital cost is worth it,” Kerr said. “But we have a ton of buildings already built. Renovating a building would cost $20 or $30 million. If you multiply that with the number of buildings that Dartmouth operates, we can’t do that — at least not all at once.”

Keniston said that the College recognizes that there is debate over the use of biomass and its potential risks. 

“We’re going to continue to talk with experts and engage in dialogue with them and others to make sure that we do biomass correctly,” Keniston said in an interview before the forum.

Keniston also said the College also has to consider other cost factors, such as financial aid and investment into faculty and academic programs. 

“For us, it’s about looking at all of the various levers that we have to pull and the overall picture of the college,” Keniston said in an interview after the forum. “With all of those other priorities, we couldn’t responsibly say we can do the low combustion version right now. But we realize that’s the future.”

The conversion to a hot water system and the development of the biomass plant will provide the College the flexibility, optionality and appropriate time frame to adopt more energy-efficient technologies over time as they become more efficient and cost-effective, according to Keniston.

“In the energy world, for large infrastructure projects, 30 years is not that long,” Keniston said after the forum. “So by designing this plant for 30 years, we’ve set ourselves in a position to move quickly to some of these other types of technologies.”

Sterman said that the biomass plant would raise emissions precisely throughout the period during which they have to fall.

“In order to limit global warming to no more than 3.6 Fahrenheit, global emissions have to fall by half by 2030 and essentially to zero by 2050,” Sterman said. “We have to be cutting emissions now. We just don’t have the time.”