Green Ideas

Middlebury burns biomass, UNC Chapel Hill (re)claims a new water supply, and Michigan State relies on environmental stewards.

July 30, 2009

"Green Ideas" spotlights different strategies, large and small, that colleges are adopting in attempts to reduce their environmental impact.

Wood Chips by the Ton

In the 1800s, Middlebury College freshmen were instructed to pack a cord of wood for their dormitory fireplaces. “We’ve kind of got the modern version of that,” said Jack Byrne, the director of sustainability integration.

A $12 million modern fireplace -- although it's more akin to a high-tech wood stove. Middlebury officials estimate that they cut their fuel use by 50 percent, and their carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent, by building a biomass gasification plant. It went online in January.

Middlebury’s description of the system is available here: Essentially, wood chips, sourced within 75 miles of the campus, are heated to produce gas, which is ignited to boil water to produce steam, which is used to generate electricity and heat and cool buildings. The smoke and ash are filtered, and the ash is used by a local fertilizer company. Middlebury officials describe the process as carbon-neutral: "Biomass comes from plants that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they grow, and therefore no additional climate-warming carbon dioxide is released when plants are grown, burned and then replaced with new plantings."

“We have a comfortable capacity of burning about 20,000 tons of wood chips per year. That equates to about a million gallons of number 6 fuel oil, which is what we had been burning to make the steam,” said Byrne. That million gallons they won't be buying costs about $1.5 million, while the wood chips cost about $800,000 – “And the great thing is that the $800,000 that we’re using to buy our fuel is money that’s showing up in the local economy that wasn’t there before.”

In terms of long-term sustainability, Byrne said, “We are playing close attention to the supply. One of the questions we asked going into this, is there sufficient capacity?” Middlebury officials identified net capacity of about 160,000 tons of wood chips in the two surrounding counties, and the college would use 1/8th of that -- OK, unless other entities got into the biomass game. “We started a pilot project that’s in its third year where we’re growing 10 acres of willow shrub on land that the college owns to look at the feasibility of maybe growing half of our supply on agricultural land."

Reclaiming the Water

“We had a drought in this area in 2002," said Raymond E. DuBose, director of energy services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It was an eye-opener for us all. Our reservoir got very, very low and the entire community, including the university, felt threatened because of that drought. The reality is we could have run out of water.”

“After the drought was over,” DuBose said, “we sat down and looked at the things that we had identified during the drought as longer-term projects that we could do to reduce our water consumption and protect our water supply.”

Foremost on the list was the construction of a reclaimed water system, which, per its name, would allow the university to “reclaim” a stream of water post-treatment at the wastewater treatment plant. The reclaimed water is non-potable, but can be used in the university’s cooling towers, and also will be used for toilet flushing and irrigation. “Save the potable water for things you have to use potable water for,” explained DuBose.

The system went into operation in April, and the estimated reduction in use of drinking water is currently about 660,000 gallons per day -- equaling about 30 percent of UNC’s total demand. The university expects that the use of reclaimed water will increase in the future, to 1.5 to 2 million gallons a day, or more.

The university invested more than $10 million in the system. The idea of constructing a reclaimed water system had actually been studied previously, in the 1990s, said DuBose. “At that time, it just didn’t look like something we would want to do because of the cost and simply the benefit, it just wasn’t there.” After the drought, it was.

Responsible Stewardship, Department by Department

Making people aware of the importance of sustainability is often half the battle. That's why Michigan State University decided to implement an environmental stewardship program among its faculty and staff as part of its Be Spartan Green initiative. Each of the university's departments has at least one steward who acts as the main spreader of information about sustainability initiatives, answers questions about reducing carbon footprint, and generally keeps colleagues' minds focused on limiting unnecessary waste.

Stewards were responsible for coordinating an Earth Hour "dim-down" of lights and electrical appliances, which resulted in a 3 percent decrease in energy use on campus. They have also provided countless suggestions on how to change certain systems, and taken smaller steps like eliminating disposable cups in their departments and turning off lights.

The program resulted from behavioral research done at Michigan State that found that peer-to-peer leaders can be very effective in getting the word out about sustainability programs, especially when participants don't have previous knowledge of the importance of sustainability. Though similar programs have been implemented amongst students to help limit waste, MSU decided to begin the program with faculty and staff.

"We wanted to look first at what we could do with faculty and staff because they tend to make more decisions that create waste," said Lauren Olson, project coordinator in MSU's department of sustainability and the initiator of the steward program.

Now about a year old, the stewardship program will be expanded to encompass students, effectively getting the entire campus involved.

"This is a perpetual process," Olson said. "We expect the program to grow and evolve for many years to come."

Please send your college's "Green Ideas" to [email protected].

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