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Biomass Plant Cuts Oil Use By 600,000 Gallons

The+large+window+looking+into+the+College+biomass+plant+invites+passersby+to+peer+in+at+the+machinery.
The large window looking into the College biomass plant invites passersby to peer in at the machinery.

The large window looking into the College biomass plant invites passersby to peer in at the machinery.

The large window looking into the College biomass plant invites passersby to peer in at the machinery.

Mitch Perry

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The College biomass gasification plant, a key component of the College’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2016, hit an important milestone today, beginning its 16th week of uninterrupted operation — the longest period of time for which the plant has been running.

This record-setting accomplishment holds significance both for the plant’s operation team and the larger environmental sustainability movement on campus. With the College’s self-imposed deadline for carbon neutrality looming, the plant’s consistent operation is essential, as the College relies on it to cut 40 percent of the College’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the plant must be periodically shut down for cleaning and maintenance, today’s accomplishment proves the College’s ability to dictate and minimize these shutdowns.

The members of the biomass plant operations team, led by Manager of the Central Heating Plant Kelly Boe, recognize their important role in striving for carbon neutrality.

“It is painful for us to use oil,” Boe said. “No one wants to be the guy that breaks the streak.”

The efforts of Boe and his team have resulted in the biomass plant nearly quadrupling its maximum continuous operation time from roughly four weeks without a shutdown in 2009, to 16 weeks in 2013.

“The really significant part of that is that it means we burn that much more biomass and that much less fuel oil,” Director of Sustainability Integration Jack Byrne said.

Since 2009, the College has decreased its use of #6 fuel oil from 2.1 million gallons annually to 634,000 gallons last year. In September of this year, the College only utilized 3,000 gallons of fuel oil. This decrease in oil consumption corresponds with a 66 percent drop in carbon emissions from heating and cooling since 2007.

“[The biomass plant] seems like the biggest and most successful part of our push towards neutrality” said Olivia French ’14, an Environmental Studies major active in many sustainability efforts at the College. “Without it, I think we would be really stuck.”

In the early days of the plant’s operation, however, it seemed that only the “biggest” part of French’s statement was true, for, back in 2009, the College’s biomass gasification plant was one of the largest units of its kind.

“There’s no book that says ‘here is how you run it’,” Boe said. “We didn’t understand the fuel, we didn’t understand the importance of how we heated the system up, how we moved the air around.”

The system was introduced by running for just three to five consecutive weeks before being shut down. After experimenting with a variety of methods of burning woodchips and making improvements to the plant, the team was able to run the plant for eight consecutive weeks.

“The improvement efforts have really been a function of the guys in the plant, it’s a great team,” Boe said, noting the biomass team’s ability to reach new benchmark goals. “They kind of systematically figured it out.”

The increased mastery of the system has minimized shutdowns, in which the plant is forced to burn fuel oil to run the College, instead of biomass.

The plant’s goal is to use less than 600,000 gallons of fuel oil this year, as well as limiting shutdowns to once in the spring and once in the fall.

Boe cited administrative support as playing a critical role in reaching biomass milestones.

“They have been wildly supportive,” Boe said. “Whenever an improvement needed to be made, they never balked.”

Byrne, too, praised Boe and his team.

“[They’ve] not only been able to make the biomass system run longer between maintenance cycles, they’ve optimized  their operation of it to routinely run at 100 percent of its capacity to meet campus steam demand,” he said.

Byrne sees the plant as a model for turning a local, renewable fuel source into energy. He cited the four to five thousand people that have toured the College’s biomass plant as evidence of the type of clean energy role model the College has become.

While a handful of local and peer institutions, including Colby College and Green Mountain College use biomass for heating, the College differs in that its efforts to produce clean energy occur on campus, as opposed to purchasing from off-campus sources of green power.

The biomass plant has also proved to members of the College and local community, as well as peer institutions, that it provides economic benefits in addition to green benefits. The College saves roughly $840,000 a year in fuel costs due to biomass gasification. Such savings, however, are countered by the annual cost of obtaining the wood chips that the plant burns, which totals approximately $800,000 annually.

Moving forward, Boe cited this coming winter as another test for the biomass gasification team. He hopes to repeat another 16-week operational streak, if not surpass it, while meeting the College’s increased demand for heating.

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Biomass Plant Cuts Oil Use By 600,000 Gallons