WATERVILLE, Maine — Colby College will take a major step toward its goal of carbon neutrality with the completion next year of a biomass boiler system that will eliminate the need for more than 1 million gallons of heating oil annually.
According to Patricia Murphy, director of Colby’s physical plant, the college’s plan is to fuel the plant with some 22,000 tons per year of forest waste and debris collected within 50 miles of Waterville.
“We don’t expect to be cutting down virgin trees for this,” said Murphy. “Some of the stuff we’re going to be using used to be just left on the forest floor.”
The $11.25 million boiler, which will support almost every building on the college’s campus, is in the early stages of construction. When finished it will provide campuswide heat, hot water, steam for cooking and dehumidification in the college’s Museum of Art. The oil system will be maintained as a backup, with heaviest use during the coldest months, Murphy said.
The project, which is being paid for with a 50-50 split between college funds and grants, including $750,000 from Efficiency Maine, is part of a goal for Colby to be carbon-neutral by 2015. That means the institution will balance the carbon it emits by pursuing clean-energy sources and buying carbon credits.
Toward that end, Colby has been purchasing its electricity from 100 percent renewable energy sources since 2003 and benefiting in recent years from a methane-capture system at a local landfill. It also has a steam turbine in its heating system that generates 10 percent of the college’s electricity.
Along with the big-ticket projects are student-led environmental initiatives, such as a program to put clothes-drying racks in all dormitories next month to reduce the use of machines. Colby junior Keith Love of Hopkinton, Mass., who is a member of the college’s Environmental Advisory Group, said any project that makes the college more environmentally friendly elicits strong support from students. That includes recent initiatives to stop using trays in the college’s cafeteria, which Love said reduces food waste, and an ongoing “Bring Back the Tap” campaign to eliminate the use of plastic water bottles. Love said the boiler project sends a strong mes-sage.
“Members of our generation are the ones who are going to have to deal with future environmental problems,” said Love, who is studying environmental sciences. “It’s nice to see that the school is behind this entire national and worldwide movement toward cleaner energy.”
“We’ve always felt that there’s an educational component beyond the classroom,” she said. “We want to be on the forefront to our students to say, ‘Look, we can do this.’ That said, saving money is not a small piece of this. They’re both very important to us.”
Murphy said Colby has been studying the issue — including the cost of having wood biomass delivered to the college — for at least two years. She estimates that the system will pay for itself in less than 10 years.
Besides the environmental benefits, the project will be felt on campus in other ways. Murphy estimated that it will take between three and six truckloads of biomass per day to supply the boiler in the coldest months. That seems like a lot, she said, until one considers that during winter, there are already two or three oil trucks vis-iting campus daily.
The plant’s emissions, which are the most common thing people ask about, said Murphy, will be minimal because it uses a gasification system that captures smoke and reburns it.
Jamie Py, president of the Brunswick-based Maine Energy Marketers Association, said his group’s members, who sell everything from heating oil to propane to wood pellets, support sustainable energy projects. What concerns Py are institutions and municipalities that rush into biomass projects — usually with government sub-sidies — before investigating other ways to save energy.
“I don’t know anything about the Colby plan,” Py said Wednesday. “All we’re saying is that before you spend huge money just to say you’re going green by burning wood, that you look at the alternatives. There are a lot of very cost-effective upgrades to systems that are already in place that can save a lot of money. A commer-cial oil burner upgrade can save 10 to 15 percent easily, and that costs only about $9,000.”
Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said the biomass industry in Maine had its birth when the price of oil skyrocketed in the 1980s. Today, he said, some 3 million tons of biomass is sold by Maine harvesters per year, which constitutes about 20 percent of the total wood products industry.
Much of that material feeds biomass boilers at paper mills and energy generation stations in Maine and beyond, though Strauch said smaller operations, such as the one at Colby, are becoming more popular. That’s good news for the industry, he said.
“It’s a good development for our industry because it diversifies our revenue,” he said. “We’ve got a market for all parts of the tree in Maine and that’s what makes our industry more resilient.”
Loggers and other forest products representatives already are soliciting contracts with Colby College, said Murphy, though no decisions will be made on that front until next summer. The college is looking for product that comes from 100 percent sustainably forested areas.
“We expect next summer to do a bid process,” said Murphy. “So far, we’re getting very positive information from everyone we’ve talked to.”