Dartmouth alumni oppose $200 million biomass plant

Dartmouth says its proposed $200 million biomass-fueled heating plant is efficient in the face of criticism from three prominent graduates.

HANOVER — Three prominent scientists who are graduates of Dartmouth College want the school to abandon the $200 million biomass heating plant proposal, saying the project would be bad for the environment.

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George Woodwell, William Schlesinger and John Sterman sent a letter to the college, seeking to have Dartmouth abandon the centerpiece of the school’s green-energy initiative.

Woodwell, who founded the Woods Hole Research Center, said the school needs to become an all-electric campus instead of burning wood-based biomass fuels.

“The college can do it, and it can afford to do it,” Woodwell said.

Schlesinger is the former dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and Sterman is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of its Sustainability Initiative.

The biomass plant would be used, instead of the current steam plant, to heat the college with hot water. The college right now burns through about 3.5 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil every year to heat its 120 buildings with steam.

The biomass plant is part of President Phil Hanlon’s pledge to reduce Dartmouth’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2050. The new plant is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2025.

Woodwell said burning biomass fuel instead of heating oil would not reduce the school’s greenhouse gas emissions, but increase them. Wood is less efficient than oil when it comes to releasing energy, and the school would need to burn through more wood, releasing more carbon.

Additionally, Woodwell said, large-scale harvesting of wood products to meet the demands of the school’s heating needs would effectively make wood a nonrenewable energy source.

“If we are going to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere we need to rebuild forests, and not cut them down,” he said.

In a letter sent Friday night responding to Woodwell, Schlesinger and Sterman, Dartmouth’s Rosi Kerr, director of sustainability, and Josh Keniston, vice president for institutional projects, stated that many of the concerns are misplaced.

“Burning biomass for the purpose of producing heat in a highly efficient system using a hot water distribution system is 89 percent efficient,” Kerr and Keniston wrote. “So, while there is much less energy in wood, we are recovering more of that energy.”

Switching from high pressurized steam to hot water heat will allow the school to start using heat pumps, another recommendation from Woodwell, and the school is on track to expand the use of solar energy, according to Kerr and Keniston. The college is already planning to make sure it uses wood-based biomass as sustainably as possible.

“We can commit to sourcing it sustainably. We are in the process of developing a fuel sourcing standard that centers on carbon as well as accountability. Low grade wood greatly in excess of our demand is currently being sustainably harvested within 50 miles of Hanover,” Kerr and Keniston wrote.

Most importantly, once the new plant is up and running, Dartmouth would be able to switch to an even more energy-efficient system that minimizes the carbon footprint once one becomes available, Kerr and Keniston wrote.

“We view the switch to a hot water system as a long-term investment that provides the flexibility to adopt new technologies as they mature and become available,” they wrote.

The current steam plant is between the Hanover Inn and the Hopkins Center for the Arts in downtown Hanover, and the college is hosting public forums to allow the community to learn about the three potential sites for the new plant.

The three potential sites are the south end of the golf course, the hill behind the Dewey parking lot, and property the college owns on Route 120 in Hanover where the Trumbull-Nelson Construction Company was formerly located.

The public forums are scheduled for 6 p.m. on July 31 and Aug. 13 in Moore Hall’s Filene Auditorium.