Biomass Plant Construction Begins at Colby College

A new biomass plant is under construction at Colby College. The plant will replace 1 million gallons of heating fuel with about 22 thousand tons of wood and forest waste.  Colby is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2015, and the building of the biomass plant is in hopes to bring it one step closer to its goal.

Over the last couple years, renewable energy efforts have been gaining more and more attention.  Fueled by the interest in renewable energy, biomass has also been a contender alongside solar, wind, and geothermal energy.

Yet, with such fanfare, biomass as fuel for energy is not without its controversy.  Is burning biomass more sustainable than burning heating fuel?  What’s the difference between burning one material over another?

Burning almost anything release carbon dioxide in the air.  As sustainability folk, we are trying to limit our output and impact of carbon dioxide, as it has devastating effects climate change.  “If we’re not conscious about our own carbon footprint, how can we really be leaders,”  said Director of Physical Plant, Patricia Murphy.

The key difference between biomass and heating fuel is in that very carbon footprint.  Biomass is said to be carbon neutral because biomass comes from a renewable resource.  Trees absorb carbon dioxide during its growth cycle.

On the flip side, a study from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences suggests that in many cases, biomass does not meet the claim of being “carbon neutral” over short periods of time.  It allegedly takes over two decades to repay the “carbon debt” of biomass, in the form of regrowing the forests that are to clear cut as biomass.

However, Colby’s biomass plant will burn low-grade forest waste and debris (including bark and treetops.)  No clear cutting forests as biomass fuel necessary.  Furthermore, the biomass will be sourced locally, within a 50 mile radius of the campus, from sustainable forest operations.

Suffice it to say, the Colby biomass plant will be turning what was once a waste product into energy.  When we think of energy, it usually translates to electricity or creating electricity.  But energy can also mean heat.

Colby has taken a systemic approach in designing its biomass plant.  It will produce steam used for heat, hot water, cooking, and co-generation of electricity.  Generating energy in the form of heat is a much better suited for biomass as opposed to only creating electricity.

While Colby Graduates “emerge as committed leaders ready to make an impact on their world,”  Colby College itself appears to be a committed leader, making a conscious and positive impact on the environment.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for going into the drawbacks of biomass! I worked on a campaign in New England to try to stop new biomass plants that were going to burn whole trees and trash (

    It’s neat to hear that Colby is only going to burn scraps. I hope there are enough in that small radius in Maine to meet their goals without clear cutting…

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