Hans Ohanian: Carbon neutrality at Middlebury College is fiction

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Hans C. Ohanian, a physicist and author of more than half a dozen physics textbooks and also the biography “Einstein’s Mistakes.” He lives in Charlotte and was a member of the Charlotte Energy Committee for several years.

[I]n its Dec. 8 news release, Middlebury College proudly claimed it has reached carbon neutrality, so the college president is thrilled, and congratulations are offered to the students for their leadership and number-crunching that led to the construction of the showy, $12 million, glass-fronted biomass heating plant in the middle of the campus.

I am less thrilled, and my own number-crunching tells me that this heating plant is horse shit rolled in sugar and sold as doughnuts.

According to carbon footprint data given in the Manomet Biomass Study, the carbon dioxide emission of a heating plant burning woodchips is 35 kg CO2 per million BTU of heat, in contrast to 27 kg CO2 for a plant burning No.6 fuel oil. The marvelous Middlebury biomass heating plant therefore produces about 30 percent more CO2 than would be produced by fuel oil.

So how can Middlebury College claim carbon neutrality? It’s a sleazy bit of skullduggery. The Vermont Energy Plan gives a free pass to carbon emissions from sustainable sources of biofuels — any such carbon emissions count as zero. The Middlebury accountants pretend that their woodchips are a sustainable source, and they therefore delete the 22,000 tons of CO2 per year emitted by their plant from their carbon balance sheet. These CO2 emissions are the biggest item in the balance sheet, and with this item erased — and a little bit of creative fudging about carbon sequestration in forest lands — Middlebury attains its goal of carbon neutrality.

But this “carbon neutrality” is fiction, not fact. The amount of CO2 wafting out of the Middlebury campus is larger now than it was before the plant began to operate, so the harm to the Earth’s climate by the greenhouse effect is greater. And the accumulation of “made-in-Middlebury” CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere will continue to increase until the CO2 emitted in the first year of operation is recaptured by regrowth of the patch of forest that supplied the woodchips for that first year. Fully grown maple, beech or oak trees might be 100 or 120 years old when cut, and that means that it will take 100 or 120 years for the patch to regrow, so it can be cut again, etc. With such a long cut-regrow cycle, the forest sources of woodchips will not reach full sustainability until the next century. By then, we will probably be relying on other energy sources for heating the Middlebury buildings (think heat pumps), and today’s biomass plant will be long gone, so it will never be able to pay back the accumulated carbon debt of its operation.

The Middlebury biomass plant is an ill-considered premature rush to the finish, like the showy but futile cavalry charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.


The extra bit of creative fudging in Middlebury’s carbon balance sheet is the exploitation of some 2,100 acres of forest lands that the college acquired for the purpose of carbon sequestration by growth of trees. In Vermont forests, the yearly increase of carbon stored in trees can be as much as 2 tons CO2 per acre, so 2,100 acres represent a sequestration of 4,200 tons per year. Middlebury is currently engaged in a commendable effort to document the amount of carbon sequestered per year, in imitation of the best practices that foresters in California have developed to certify sequestration rates (by a payment of about $10 per ton CO2 you can participate in a certified Californian forest carbon-sequestration project, which is just about the cheapest way to achieve a carbon-footprint reduction; see The Middlebury carbon-sequestration project might set a valuable precedent for similar sequestration projects for all Vermont forests.

However, as emphasized repeatedly by James Hansen in his book “Storms of my Grandchildren,” forest preservation, reforestation and afforestation projects should not be used as offsets for emissions of CO2. Carbon sequestration by forests should be implemented as a supplement to direct reductions of carbon emissions, not as an excuse to continue carbon emissions. Hansen remarks that “Offsets are like the indulgences that were sold by the church in the Middle Ages. People of means loved indulgences, because they could practice any hanky-panky or worse, then simply purchase an indulgence to avoid punishment for their sins.”

The carbon abundance in the Earth’s atmosphere has now reached more than 400 ppm, and to reduce this to the safe level of 350 ppm proposed by Hansen, we need not only to stop carbon emissions entirely, but also increase carbon sequestration by forest conservation, reforestation and afforestation (creation of new forests). Storage of carbon in the woody parts of trees is at present our only practical sequestration process for large amounts of carbon. Devices for carbon sequestration by capture of CO2 from the effluent of fossil or biomass power plants and permanent storage of this CO2 in subterranean reservoirs (for instance, empty oil fields) are under development, but might not be economically feasible. Carbon absorption by fast-growing vegetation — such as corn, sugar cane, switchgrass, or the ill-fated willow-bushes that Middlebury tried to grow to fuel its biomass plant — do not offer long-term storage of carbon, but merely help to reduce our fossil-fuel use somewhat.

The Middlebury biomass plant burns sawmill waste, that is, the outer parts of logs with knotholes and other irregularities that cannot be sliced into clean boards or posts. An excuse often offered for burning these residues in a biomasss plant is that they are going to be burnt anyhow by somebody (say, homeowners with fireplaces and wood stoves), so why not make good use of them in a biomass plant? But this sounds rather like the argument contrived by a receiver of stolen goods who claims that if thieves steal things and the owners cannot be identified, then why not market these things and put them to good use? The defect in this argument is obvious: If we support a market in stolen goods, then we encourage more thievery. Likewise, if Middlebury supports a market in sawmill waste (by “pumping $1 million into the local forest economy,” as the Middlebury news release puts it), then it encourages the cutting of more trees, and ultimately also the cutting of trees for firewood rather than for construction and carpentry lumber.

In its focus on carbon neutrality and sustainability, the Middlebury program falls into the same trap as the Vermont Energy Plan, with its goal 90 percent renewables by 2050. It’s not about carbon neutrality, dummy, but about carbon reduction. Imagine that by some miracle we were to achieve carbon neutrality by tomorrow morning (genuine carbon neutrality, not fictional Middlebury neutrality), with no further increases of atmospheric CO2 beyond what they are today. Then the rate of increase of the global temperature would also become “sustainable” at today’s value of about 0.2 degree C per decade. Anyone can see that this is not a viable strategy for the long-term future of the Earth. We don’t want sustainability of the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere, but a decrease of this concentration. And to attain this goal, we need forests, and more forests. Maybe Vermont should follow the example of Switzerland, where the cutting of trees is strictly forbidden, and a special permit is required for cutting even a single tree.

Sustainability and carbon neutrality are good long-term goals, but a disastrous strategy for the short term (say, for the rest of this century). We are in an emergency condition and we need quick and efficient measures to bring the carbon concentration below 350 ppm, which is the critical value for stabilizing the global temperature at no more than 1 or 2 degrees C above the present temperature. Only after we reach this goal can we relax and adopt a sensible long-term sustainability strategy.

Instead of a showy biomass plant, what would have been a better alternative for Middlebury? The obvious alternative is a heating plant fueled by natural gas, which would have been cheaper to build and would have delivered the same amount of heat with half the carbon emissions of the biomass plant. Another alternative is conversion to heat pumps, perhaps a mixture of ground-source and air-source heat pumps. The Middlebury biomass plant is an ill-considered premature rush to the finish, like the showy but futile cavalry charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, of which a French marshal said, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”

Unfortunately, almost all the Vermont renewable-energy projects — solar panels, wind turbines, biomass electric plants, etc. — are more for show than for effect. They are not cost-effective for the Vermont public and/ or they result in increases of carbon emissions, as in the case of the “carbon-neutral” McNeil electric plant, which spews out 400,000 tons CO2 per year. In Vermont, carbon neutrality is merely a giddy state of mind.


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