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The Dartmouth
February 24, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

College reconsiders biomass plant, continues work on heating system

The College's current heating plant burns No. 6 fuel oil.

Following concerns raised by a group of scientists, the College is reconsidering its plan to construct a biomass heating plant as a replacement for its current oil-powered plant. The scientists — William Schlesinger ’72, John Sterman ’77 and George Woodwell ’50 — wrote a letter to the College this past summer in which they stated that the new heating system should not contribute to climate change.

Constructing a biomass plant on campus was one of the initial steps of the College’s Green Energy Plan, which sets out goals for improving sustainability on campus and combating climate change.

The College is currently exploring alternatives to a biomass energy system, particularly those that do not involve combustion in their processes, according to vice president for institutional projects Josh Keniston. The ongoing debate about the biomass system centers on how much carbon will be recaptured by newly planted trees after trees are cut down for use in the system, as well as how to best account for greenhouse gas emissions.

Some Hanover residents have expressed concern about the project, particularly whether or not burning biomass is truly preferable to burning fossil fuels, according to Hanover town manager Julia Griffin. Other energy sources, such as solar technology, were mentioned in a public forum that took place on July 31 as possible non combustion-based energy alternatives.

The choice to delay the biomass plant project was the result of the feedback phase of planning, Keniston said. He added that after hearing from alums, community members and members of the climate research community, the College decided it would first conduct an analysis of the energy plant’s future and verify that a biomass plant was the correct decision for the College’s future energy generation center.

The potential location for the biomass plant was never decided on before the project was reconsidered, according to Keniston. Community engagement sessions were conducted about tentative locations earlier this summer before the plan was delayed, but the College will not announce a preferred site until they have decided whether or not biomass is the best option.

The sustainability project as a whole focuses on three main components: efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions and renewability, according to Keniston. The College’s Green Energy Plan website states that the College aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2025, improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2030 and utilize 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. 

Keniston noted that a fourth component of the plan — not directly related to the Green Energy Plan — is to upgrade the campus’ aging infrastructure.

“A large portion of our current energy system is over 50 years old and needs to be replaced,” Keniston said. 

The other main project announced as part of the Green Energy Plan — replacing the steam-based heating system on campus with a more efficient water-heating system — is proceeding as planned, with construction currently underway. This system, according to the College’s website, will replace almost 26,000 feet of steam pipes, and 119 buildings on campus will convert their energy sources from steam to hot water. This shift will provide an approximately 20 percent increase in efficiency.

Griffin emphasized the importance of the hot water system currently being constructed. She added that Dartmouth students and city officials spent a week in Denmark in early September to research Scandinavia’s innovations in central hot water heating.

“We wanted to just get a feel for what’s the state of the art in a part of the world that is light years ahead of the U.S. on this front,” Griffin said.

The trip gave them an opportunity to observe the cutting-edge fuel source technology as renewable energy plants are just beginning operation.

Griffin said that the trip to Denmark led the College to commit to moving forward with replacing its steam pipes with insulated hot water pipes.

“I think that that decision to take that trip together really reflects our commitment to all be students of this type of heating and grappling with technology and what the future might look like for heating sources for a hot water heating system,” Griffin said.

Hot water systems are more consistent than steam systems, according to Keniston. He added that because steam systems have a very intense heat, the system can be heard audibly coming on and shutting off to cool down in a way hot water systems do not.

Currently, adding heat to the system can only originate in the central plant because it is a high-pressure system. With a hot water system, it is possible to use solar panels on the roofs of a building to heat water within the individual building.

Maya Kempf-Harris
Maya (’23) is a political beat reporter for The Dartmouth. She is from Maryland, and plans to major in English and minor in public policy.