- The Washington Times - Monday, October 19, 2009

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (AP) | 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 nine-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 integration for the college, and Tom Corbin, director of business services, 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 one-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,” Mr. 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, Mr. Byrne said.

Joining in the experiment are scientists from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Tim Volk, a SUNY research scientist whose school had been working with willow for about 20 years, sees a trend developing in willow fuel being used along with traditional wood harvest.

“It’s something that’s going to start happening fairly quickly in the next few years,” he said. “People can start up a small-scale heating system with biomass, using a mixture of willows and low-value wood harvested from natural forests.”

Still to be answered are questions about the economics of willow as a fuel — that’s one of the goals of the Middlebury experiment.

Christopher Recchia, executive director at the Montpelier-based Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC), a nonprofit that promotes biofuels, said the best estimates now are that willow would cost more than twice as much as wood chips, which currently cost about $8 per million British thermal unit (Btu). Willow would be competitive with wood pellets, which are about $23 per million Btu and oil, about $32 per million Btu.

Adam Sherman, program director for fuels at BERC, praised the work going on at Middlebury, saying the college is “doing the right thing in leaving no stone unturned” in looking for fuel sources for its biomass system.

But Mr. Sherman said Vermont isn’t in danger of getting to “peak wood,” the way some energy experts talk about “peak oil” meaning that supplies of petroleum soon will be declining steeply.

Vermont is 78 percent forested, and its forests add about 13 million tons of wood every year through natural growth, Mr. Sherman said. Loggers take about 1.5 million to 2 million tons of that, and could double the harvest without harming the forests, according to Mr. Sherman’s group.

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