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.

In 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 carbonfund.org). 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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  • Is it standard practice to “delete” the CO2 from renewable sources? I’ve long been skeptical of checkbook neutrality, but this looks appalling. But its more likely a case of well meaning people basically doing as they’re told, like those who take advantage of RECs and production credits.

  • Ironic that a state that takes pride in being a shrine to a sturdy, plaid-shirted agrarian past should abandon that effort and bury itself instead in a voodoo carbon neutrality. This time, the client is not a down country tourist but Mother Nature herself, who wont be impressed with glossy photos of men on windmills.

  • George Plumb

    Right on Hans! And there is no accounting for the probability of millions of tons of carbon emissions generated by faculty and students jetting, cruising and driving all over the world.

  • Mr Ohanian
    Does the CO2 emissions from the no. 6 fuel oil include the emissions from the extraction, refining, and transportation of petroleum and how do these compare with locally sourced, minimally ? processed biomass. Also, if wood waste were not burned, what would you do with it ? Letting it rot in the woods generates CO2 and methane. Biodigesting ultimately produces CO2 when the methane is burned.
    In your list of “more for show than for effect” renewable energy projects you did not specifically list hydro. Do you think hydro is effective in reducing carbon concentration ?

    • Hans Ohanian

      MIddlebury has never done a life-cycle carbon-footprint assessment of the operation of its biomass plant vs. its old oil burner, and I don’t have access to their data to do this. Data from somewhat similar installations suggests that because of high ancillary carbon costs in the fuel-oil supply chain, the difference between the biomass burner and the oil burner is narrower, but even under optimistic assumptions the operation of the biomass burner has the higher carbon footprint.
      If we don’t burn the wood waste, we could use it for the manufacture of particle board, for furniture and home-construction. Alternatively we could convert woodchips into charcoal (a.k.a. biochar) by charring them in an oven heated by burning a fraction of the woodchips. As emphasized by Al Gore, biochar is an excellent additive and conditioner for agricultural soils, and remains stably stored in soils for hundreds of years.
      I can’t explain the hydro situation in the short space available here.

  • Mr. Ohanion is absolutely correct when it comes to supposedly off-setting carbon emissions through forest sequestration, but totally misses the point that the problem is ancient carbon that was stored away in the earth as oil, gas and coal. The burning of biomass only releases carbon sequestered during the plant’s growth. He also does not seem to realize that reforresting is only part of the answer. We must, and can easily sequester all the carbon nessessary to reverse climate destabilization through organic, biodynamic and permaculture agricultural practices. See http://www.nofamass.org/sites/default/files/2015_White_Paper_web.pdf

  • So while Middlebury college is moving in the right direction, and Mr. Ohanian is right that actions to date tend to exaggerate the benefits gained, let’s stop pointing fingers and start getting to work on the reality of what needs to be done: the creation of tens of millions of new organic farms utilizing carbon sequestration ag techniques worldwide, supported by billions of conscious consumers.

  • Julie Mitchell

    I appreciate the author’s ability to reveal the truth behind Middlebury College efforts for carbon neutrality. However the idea that natural gas is ‘carbon neutral’ is just as ill-conceived. Natural gas is categorically unsustainable, wreaking a path of pollution and a finite source.

  • John Lesher

    Thank you Hans….Your “Emperor Has No Clothes” analysis is right on! My own experience with the type of flawed logic that allows renewable energy projects to be “greenwashed” as saving our planet has to do with a solar project, that will be part of BED’s renewable portfolio, that will cut down 20+ acres of trees. This makes no sense, as you have so succinctly pointed out. Because the approval process of this type of project has been unduly influenced by the political will of our previous gubernatorial administration, this project was approved. It is not yet built though and my own, politically perverse, hope is that it will not be because the Federal Tax Incentives for the construction of this type of project may go away with our new presidential administration. I wish the type of scientific analysis that you have presented here was the standard by which renewable projects were approved…I am afraid it is still too political/profitable. Thanks again for your analysis!

  • Jane Palmer

    Mr Ohanian says, “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.”
    I presume you are only considering the CO2 emissions from the heat plant? Do you intend to say that a “natural” fracked gas burning plant would not have any other hidden environmental “costs” that would not be counted in this carbon tally? Are you not counting the greenhouse gas, Methane, that leaks and is released into the atmosphere during the fracking process and the transportation of the methane to the burning plant?

    • You are equating “natural gas” with a “fracked gas burning plant.” That demonstrates a misunderstanding of production of natural gas.

      Gas is taken from underground coal seams, also, where it is piped directly into the pipeline system. Gas is also taken from gas reseroirs found underground. Gas can also be created by gasification of coal, although not so much in the US.

      Getting past all that, in the narrow case of the College, the further question is whether they have direct access to a gas line, or if that would have to be constructed (I dunno). And if not, then is the College better off tapping into power from Hydro-Quebec?

    • Hans Ohanian

      Yes, I am considering only the direct CO2 emissions from the heat plant. As I mentioned in my reply to Ken Egnaczak, Middlebury has not done a life-cycle carbon footprint assessment, and its claim to carbon neutrality is based merely on its local emissions, without any allowance for the embedded carbon footprint of the construction of the biomass plant, the transport and distillery footprints of the fuel used by its woodchip trucks, etc. In the absence of detailed data for any of this, I can only say that typical data for leakage and transportation costs suggest that instead of 50% of the emissions of the biomass plant, a gas-fueled plant and its fuel supply would have about 60%. Environmental costs of use of gas vs. use of wood are extremely uncertain, and as best I know Middlebury has not examined them.

      • Moshe Braner

        You are undercounting the climate effect of methane leaks. Since you correctly put an emphasis on the need to cut greenhouse gases in the short term (few decades), you should consider that methane is about a 20x more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Even a few percents leak (which is what measurements show for the fracking system as a whole) therefore makes natural gas worse than coal in the short term.

        And to Jan below: non-fracked natural gas (conventional wells, coal seam, etc) peaked (in the US) years ago, and by now roughly a half of the NG is from fracking. That too will peak and decline within the next decade, because it’s a net money loser, and because they’ve used up the “sweet spots”. It’s a round, therefore finite, planet.

  • Kim Fried

    Thank you Mr. Ohanian for a clear and informative article. As you say presently many Vermonters and certainly our Legislature, let alone individual projects such as Middlebury College, of all places, just love fiction when it comes to renewable energy, goals and legislation. At some point, hopefully, we give up the fiction, the feel good nonsense, the profiteering and start to take our climate serious using a truly scientific approach. Mean while on the positive front more and more citizens are learning about Vermont’s RE ficition.

  • Lou Faivre

    Very interesting. But, who’s right? I look for a response from Middlebury College.

  • Peter Limon

    The article is excellent in that it calls out many of the myths of so-called “carbon neutrality.” It does not mention some aspects of burning wood that is particularly bad for the environment and for global warming effects; namely, wood is dirty. Wood has many complicated chemicals. That is one of the attributes that make it attractive. Wood also burns at lower temperature that, for example, natural gas. The result is that, in addition to more carbon dioxide per BTU, there are many polutants sent into the atmosphere, some of which are dangerous. In addition, and in many ways worse, burning wood generates soot. This soot eventually settles on ice and snow and increases it absorption of energy from sunlight — in physics terms, its emissivity. This drastically speeds up its rate of melting, contributing to rising sea levels among other bad results. Burning wood is not the answer.

  • Moshe Braner

    I agree about the large scale tree-cutting, and about the “offsets”. Solar panels and wind turbines, too, take many years to reclaim the carbon used in their manufacturing and installation. And natural gas will double in price in a few years as the Ponzi scheme of financing fracking winds down. There is no alternative to using less energy.

    But some wood burning does have a role. In any forest some trees die naturally, and the embedded carbon is released over a few years if the dead trees are left to rot. Collecting the dead trees for firewood therefore displaces significant fossil carbon. It takes a few acres to sustainably heat one house that way.

    • Hans Ohanian

      No, the carbon embedded in a dead tree is not “released over a few years,” and it is sometimes advantageous to let dead trees stand. In the forest surrounding my house I still find standing dead stumps that have been there since the days of the ice storm of 1998. I leave those stumps alone, because they keep carbon in storage and they rot only slowly. But if a tree or stump falls, then it will rot quickly because of moisture drawn from the ground, and it will release methane. So my rule of thumb is to take the firewood only from fallen dead trees, because the CO2 released from their burning is less harmful than the methane from their rotting.

  • A simple principle was overlooked in this analysis. A young forest produces a number of tons of wood per acre continuously, by taking carbon out of the air, and using the sun’s energy to turn it into high-energy fuel. We can burn it, to use that energy, putting the carbon back into the air, in a continuous (sustainable) cycle. If we don’t some of its wood, a forest reaches steady state and will not store more carbon. His suggestion is to burn natural gas, which adds mind numbingly large amounts new carbon to the air (carbon that had been locked up for more than 50 million years). While the author points out that the McNeil plant puts out 400,000 tons of CO2 per year, all of that can be replaced, year by year, from 200,000 acres of healthy growing forest as he points out. On the other hand, the big natural gas power plant in Londonderry, NH permanently adds seven times that much per year.

    • Hans Ohanian

      The US Northeast has a heavy need of energy for heating buildings in winter. Construction of new net-zero energy, superinsulated houses can help somewhat with this heating problem, but most of our houses are old and cannot be brought up to anything like the net-zero energy standard. This means that until we get access to larger amounts of electric power for heat pumps, we will have to rely on oil and natural gas–and the latter has by far the lesser carbon footprint. That’s why I recommend natural gas for heating, as an intermediate step, until we can get access to increased supplies of renewable electric power, perhaps hydropower from Quebec. The Canadians are far ahead of us in addressing the heating problem–in Quebec, electric heat for homes is already in wide use, and it’s cheap.

      • Electric resistance heat first came into use in Quebec in 1932, with the completion of the first phase of the Beauharnois Rapids power dam, diverting the entire St. Lawrence River flow through massive electrical generators. The ultimate completion of the project, started in I think 1930 and not finished until the 1960’s, with the last of 38 massive turbines cranking over 1,900 MW of power, made electric power (thus heat) cheap, and started Montreal on the road to becoming a world city. The Montreal Heat, Power and Light Co. was nationalized and became Hydro-Quebec, the vehicle for financing the way of life of the Province, with free medical care for all, and basically free education to the college degree level. Hydro Quebec has lots of power to sell, and is hungry for American customers. You could do worse.

        There is this bizarre mentality here that the Canadians are gong to screw you if you buy their power. Ain’t gonna happen, folks. Enjoy.

  • The author says it is necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 from 400 (and rising 2 per year) to 350. But he says that solar, wind, biofuels, etc, are not effective. His plan, to continue burning fossil fuel and to grow more trees, is utterly ludicrous. Vermont is 80% forested. If we never touch another tree, the forest will soon reach maturity and hold no more CO2, while the world continues to add billions of tons of CO2 which can never be removed. The only way to permanently reduce CO2 from 400 to 350 is to grow trillions and trillions of tons of plant material, cut it down, and bury it under anerobic conditions so it does not decompose, where it will become coal, oil, and natural gas after many billion years. It is obvious that we should simply NOT BURN it. Leave it in the ground.

  • Dr. Ohanian tells us that Middlebury College’s bio-mass plant isn’t carbon neutral. He instead claims that it is actually a CO2 spewing monster filling the atmosphere with tons of global warming fumes…….worse than a plant burning #6 fuel oil.

    In light of Ohanian’s point of view on the carbon neutrality of the plant, there are surely going to be some who take exception with his assessment that the plant is exhaling of tons of CO2.

    If Ohanian is wrong in his assessment, then someone has to step forward and tell us where his thinking is faulty.

    Bill McKibben, a Distinguished Scholar at Middleburg College, should be intimately familiar with the plant and equipped to tell us where Ohanian is wrong. If McKibben doesn’t think Ohanian is wrong then he should tell us so. Will he step forward?

    Or how about the folks at VPRIG or the PSB who must have approved this plant based on it being in the “public good”. Will they step forward?

    Silence will indicate Ohanian is right.

    • John Greenberg

      Peter Yankowski:

      “If Ohanian is wrong in his assessment, then someone has to step forward and tell us where his thinking is faulty.” My comments, summarized here, do so:

      1) Offsetting carbon (e.g. by planting more forests) has the same impact on global warming as not spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. Ohanian, Hansen, Braner, and I prefer the latter to the former, but that’s just our opinion. Climate science supports both options.

      2) The comparison of the wood plant to the existing oil plant (and to a potential natural gas plant) is useless. Valid comparison can be based only on net lifecycle analysis, which Ohanian admits he hasn’t done.

      3) The argument claims that forests are being cut IN ORDER TO fuel plants like Middlebury’s (almost certainly false) and that there are other uses for wood waste. Neither is supported factually.

      4) Sustainability pertains to whole ecosystems, not to one forest and one heating plant. Ohanian’s argument misses this critical point.

      • Your comments are appreciated, John…But I would ask the same of McKibben…

        “Will you inform and enlighten us with the research and statistics from Middlebury College?”…If Bill asks then I am sure the reports will be provided…

        We are all looking for the truth in dealing with climate change…

  • One last comment – I agree that Vermonters move to heat pumps over fossil fuel or wood burning. However, heat pumps run on electricity, and that must come from renewable sources, not fossil fuel, or we are NOT saving the environment.

    • Kathy Leonard

      Bill Christian, we are NOT saving the environment in any case.
      We have become soft, overpopulous creatures who seek ease and convenience, and our trust is being put into industrial technology to save us from what industrial technology has created.

      I think Moshe is the one commenter on this page thus far who touched on our way of living in this discussion. ‘None of the above’ will deliver us from us, and we appear to be hellbent on dividing ourselves at every turn rather than to see ourselves as a human ecosystem that lives within our carbon means, learns to live cooperatively – or dies out.

      • John Greenberg

        Kathy Leonard:

        There may be a reason why Moshe was “the one commenter on this page thus far who touched on our way of living:” namely, it’s irrelevant to “THIS discussion,” as is your comment.

        Unless you’re suggesting that Middlebury should simply freeze in the winter to show that it is not “seek[ing] ease and convenience,” the question here is not WHETHER it should heat itself, but HOW.

        Like Moshe, I push hard for energy conservation and efficiency whenever possible. But this example demonstrates a simple truth: efficiency alone can’t solve all energy problems. And, in any case, global warming is not our only environmental problem.

        Indeed, merely by living on this planet, we WILL change the ecosystem of which we are a part. So, you’re right, “we are NOT saving the environment.” We can choose to live in it causing more damage or less, but not none.

        Articulating problems unrealistically often makes them insoluble. Good solutions follow from properly framed questions.

        • Kathy Leonard

          I’d go far beyond your “pushing for efficiency and conservation,” John Greenburg. Nothing proposed speaks to the larger question of how we live on the land. I stand by my comment…we are not operating as a species that will succeed; a quick look at other species’ ability (or inability) to adapt illustrates our failure to live within our planet’s limits. “Properly-framed questions” that don’t reach beyond conventional failed thinking may be the most damaging of all.

          I’ll not respond further to your attempt to limit discussion here.

          • Jamie Carter

            “a quick look at other species’ ability (or inability) to adapt illustrates our failure to live within our planet’s limits.”

            Perhaps we just need to adapt to a warmer climate until the weather pattern cycles back towards and ice age, at which point we should probably adapt again…

            Our main problem as a species is that we want things to be static. We want this climate to stay just the way it is. But that’s not how it works. The earth changes and species change with it or they perish. Now we can all work to do our best to keep the climate in a static state, or we could put our collective resources together to prepare for the future. Me… I’m voting for the latter.

    • The problem with heat pumps is that they tend to use rather nasty gases as the operating fluid; those gases escape into the atmosphere over time, and cause damage. While I have designed a nice heat pump that uses no such gases and runs just fine as a prototype, using ordinary air as the operating fluid, I am not optimistic that it will ever become a merchantable product, there being a lack of risk capital available on respectable terms.

      I think you will find this to be the case with most technical goods; the better alternatives never make it to market for non-technical reasons, and society remains the poorer for it.

      • Moshe Braner

        Jan: Like Kathy said above, I am not looking for technology to “save us”, as in save our lifestyle. But in this specific detail of refrigerant fluids, we did shift from one class of materials to another to resolve the Ozone Hole issue, and will have to shift again due to the climate impact (CHFCs being thousands of times stronger in greenhouse effect than CO2). There are already heat pumps marketed in Japan using CO2 as the working fluid. (CO2 from the air so when it returns to the air the net effect if neutral, plus the quantities are small relative to CO2 from combustion.)

        The reason carbon (CO2) emissions have not been reduced is because, unlike in the case of refrigerants, there is no alternative to fossil fuels that can maintain our profligate lifestyle. No matter what the solar and wind aficionados tell you. Renewable energy is good, but economically poorer. We’ll have to accept being poorer, if we want our grandkids to have a bearable life.

        • I disagree. Technology brings marvelous benefits. I get the distinct impression you have not been out for a spin on my fast electric bicycle. Ride all day at 40 mph for a dime of electricity. Just one example.

          • Moshe Braner

            Jan: I’ve used an electrically assisted bicycle for the last decade, for about 40% of my commuting in the warmer half of each year. So I am perfectly aware of such technologies. It is of course safer and much more comfortable to drive a car in the winter. Alas the individually-driven multi-seat enclosed and heated motor vehicles may slip out of economical feasibility in the next few decades. I don’t believe that “full-size” electric vehicles that offer the range (and heating) we enjoy now from gasoline-powered vehicles will ever be affordable for most of us. That means we’ll have to get used to walking, biking, using minimalist motor vehicles such as e-bikes, or sharing public transport. And that’s just because oil is getting scarce – before even considering the climate. You can quibble, and keep the faith that the technology gods will deliver on time, but that’s just an assumption, and a dangerous one.

          • Moshe Braner

            PS: it’s a dime of electricity because electricity is currently under-priced. More importantly, you only counted the cost of the electricity. What about the batteries? Let’s assume that your batteries cost $1000 (may be an underestimate for lithium batteries for a powerful e-bike – the NiMH battery pack for my e-bike cost $400). If they last 5 years (no claims about number of cycles please – they die of old age too), that’s $200 per year, or about $1 per day if you ride them almost every non-freezing day. The gasoline for my daily commute in my Prius currently costs about that much. And theoretically it could carry a car-pool of 4 people. With heating.

  • Rob Williams

    The international scientific environmental community including, the Kyoto Protocol, European Union &, EPA all consider High Efficiency Advanced Wood Heating systems, that use fuel that is sustainably harvested carbon neutral (like Middlebury College).The exception is that there are a few some studies that have been peer reviewed, that under specific conditions it may be consider “low carbon”/not quite carbon neutral. The EU Directive set goals for integrating high efficiency biomass to account for 56% of the renewable energy supply in the by 2020 (EU27a). In addition to it being carbon neutral or low carbon, it’s also beneficial to our local economy. It is the equivalent of Local Food with, the trickle-down reoccurring revenue generated through the fuel chain supply & equally beneficial for maintaining our Forest Health.
    It appears this gentleman extracted a few facts, then sensationalized them with literary prowess to get published.

    • Hans Ohanian

      I have no objections to the pronouncements of the Kyoto Protocol, the EU, the EPA, the VT Legislature, ex-Governor Shumlin, and any other worthies that heating systems are carbon neutral if they use a sustainably harvested source of fuel. But I maintain that forest wood becomes a sustainable source only after the batch of wood has gone once around the full fuel cycle from a tree in the forest, to the furnace, to the atmosphere, ending with regrowth of a new tree of the same size. To take a fully grown tree from the forest this year and give back a 1-year old sapling the next year is not sustainability, but fraud. And to worry about benefits for the local economy is misguided–we have to learn to pay a price for the carbon footprint we inflict on Eaarth, even when this footprint is inflicted temporarily, for “only” 100 years.

      • Don Kreis

        Though my alma mater has not replied to Mr. Ohanian’s article, it has its own discussion of the carbon neutrality claim on page 28 of the winter issue of the College alumni magazine. A key statement from that article: “Middlebury’s biomass is considered carbon neutral because the forest that supply it are growing faster than what’s harvested, thereby absorbing more carbon than what’s emitted by burning wood chips.” In other words, the College is claiming it’s doing a lot more than just planting one sapling for every tree burned . . . unless I am misinterpreting the foregoing quote.

  • Cliff Adams Jr

    Thank you Hans for a clear call to task of critical errors in our approach to getting serious about climate. When Jack Benny (for those of us old enough to remember Jack) was asked by the robber in a skit, “Your money or your life!” the joke was an appropriately long comedic pause before replying, “I’m thinking about it.” In relation to this only world we have to live on it seems we’re more into feel good comedy than looking at the real solutions. We are in a situation of our money or our lives and it’s no joke.

  • Steven Farnham

    You lost me with the idea of burning gas. What about fracking?

    Other than that your argument is spot on. I fail to understand the love affair with biomass (burning stuff). It’s more of the same-ol’ same-ol’, and it won’t save us.

    Plus, you make no mention of the carbon footprint of cutting trees and grinding them into that vaunted biomass. You’re right; it’s a lot of horse poo.

    But look out – Phil Scott’s newly appointed Deputy Commissioner of Forests Parks & Recreation is looking to breathe new life into the flagging low-grade forestry products industry.


  • edward letourneau

    The idea of Vermont powering itself on renewables is more poppycock. It cannot be technically done, just as this report on Middlebury shows.

  • John Greenberg

    Hans Ohanian cites James Hansen’s statement that carbon offsets should not be “an excuse to continue carbon emissions,” but despite a lot of fancy rhetoric and analogies, he never explains why. I’d like to understand.

    Unlike medieval indulgences, carbon offsets appear to rely on simple arithmetic rather than papal dispensations. If humans add x amount of carbon to the atmosphere, on the one hand, but take actions which reduce the amount of available atmospheric carbon by x, why isn’t the net impact 0? Similarly, if we add x, but subtract 2x, haven’t we decreased the total amount of greenhouse gas?

    If the answer to either of these questions is no, I’d like to see an explanation. If the answer to the questions is yes, then please explain why this isn’t a viable strategy.

    Whether it’s the best strategy or even a good one is a whole separate debate, which should be based on more than just this one notion. Right now, I’m just trying to understand the basic principle here.

    • Moshe Braner

      The carbon-absorbing actions that are supposedly paid for by the “offsets” would often be taken anyway (since they are profitable), or happen naturally (trees happen), or don’t really happen (fraud). And in any case the attitude that we can do whatever we please (especially jetting around the world) because we can pay somebody else to not cut down their own trees (or what have you) is both illogical and arrogant. Somebody likened it to trying to lose weight by paying somebody else to exercise while you sit on the bench eating ice cream.

      • John Greenberg

        Moshe Braner:

        Thanks for your reply, but it doesn’t address the fundamental issue I raised. If the arithmetic is as it appears, then carbon-absorbing actions are a perfectly reasonable strategy for lowering the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

        Your analogy misses the point: there is only one earth and it doesn’t care WHO puts CO2 in the atmosphere or takes it out. Paying someone to diet doesn’t work because it involves two distinct individuals, not one planet.

        The other issues you raise (fraud, double-counting, etc.) are doubtless legitimate questions to ask about HOW we arrive at the figures to be used in making these calculations, but they don’t change the fundamental principle: removing carbon works just as well as not adding it.

        • Jamie Carter

          “Your analogy misses the point: there is only one earth and it doesn’t care WHO puts CO2 in the atmosphere or takes it out. ”

          John you make a good point… the earth doesn’t care. It doesn’t care one bit. It has natural cycles. It was warming regardless. Humans may have accelerated that, but at some point in the future we were going to be in this spot regardless, because the earth has natural warming and cooling cycles.

          Perhaps, all humans have done has been to speed up the natural course of evolution. Humans will either adapt or die off, just like every single other species that has ever inhabited the earth. Shall we stomp our feet and throw all our resources at trying to go back in time, or shall we instead develop new building materials, new sources of energy, new technology, and new methods for construction of homes, infrastructure, etc?

          You can try to prevent the inevitable, or you can try to prepare for it. I’m going to get busy preparing.

    • Hans Ohanian

      Your arithmetic is correct, but what Hansen wants to emphasize is that we need to fight carbon footprint every which way, to achieve the goal of a reduction to 350 ppm for CO2. The motto of carbonfundorg.com will perhaps make it clear to you, “Reduce what you can, Offset what you can’t.” .

  • John Greenberg

    Hans Ohanian provides another argument that I don’t get: “An excuse often offered for burning these residues in a biomass plant is that they are going to be burnt anyhow …. But this sounds rather like the argument contrived by a receiver of stolen goods … If we support a market in stolen goods, then we encourage more thievery.”

    Either Mr. Ohanian is arguing that cutting trees is a “crime” against nature, and by presumed extension, that we should stop using wood products and any other product derived from cutting trees, or I’m missing his point.

    My guess is that the biggest market for wood products is building construction. If that’s the case, an obvious question arises: if we stop using wood products for housing and other shelter, what SHOULD we use? In particular, what material would produce less lifecycle carbon?

    On the other hand, if wood is among the better ways of providing shelter materials, then why isn’t burning the waste a reasonable solution?

  • John Greenberg

    Hans Ohanian offers arithmetic based on the “emission of a heating plant burning woodchips … in contrast to … a plant burning No.6 fuel oil.” But that’s only part of the story.

    He needs to examine not just the fuel’s BTU value, but the lifecycle carbon cost of burning it. Oil needs to be drilled, refined, and transported to the site where the burning will occur. The same is true for wood: trees need to be cut, processed, and the scraps transported to site. Since the product in question is only one of many obtained from the original source, we need to attribute some PORTION of the values obtained to the fuel while the remainder is attributed to other uses. Finally, we need to consider (if Ohanian’s figures don’t do so already) the relative efficiency of burning these fuels.

    Oil’s lifecycle would SEEM to add a LOT more carbon: drilling is harder than tree cutting; transportation distances much bigger, etc.

    I haven’t attempted the analysis. Has Mr. Ohanian?

    • Moshe Braner

      Such analyses have been done, although different researchers come up with different numbers. What is clear is that steaming oil off of tar sands – using huge amounts of natural gas – emits huge amounts of carbon and, is not much of a net energy gain. Fracking for oil and gas – with thousands of trips of large trucks per well hauling water and sand and the extracted products – is similarly futile. (And they lose money on every well, although they do make up for it in volume, as the joke goes.) And growing corn with pesticides, artificial fertilizers, pumped water, and huge machines, then distilling it into ethanol using huge amounts of natural gas, then trucking it, is a very marginal net energy gain, if any. And all of those cause huge pollution effects that require energy to mitigate but are not counted.

  • John Greenberg

    Hans Ohanian writes: “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.”

    But Middlebury College is not the only consumer of these forest products and I doubt it uses ALL of the available products produced. The analyses I’ve seen suggest that there is still a considerable amount of underutilized forestry acreage in Vermont.

    Calculating sustainability requires an analysis of ongoing wood scrap production over time compared to the total consumption over the same period. If forest productivity is greater than foreseeable consumption, the system is sustainable. What am I missing?

    I’m not defending the Middlebury project or the analysis it has presented; I am questioning Ohanian’s critique.

    • Hans Ohanian

      You are right: we must compare the production and consumption over time. And that’s the rub–for the first 100 years of operation, the wood burning exceeds the wood regrowth in the patches of wood we are cutting, assuming we cut 100 patches of our forest once every 100 years in rotation. After 100 years, burning attains equilibrium with regrowth. But the average age of our forest will then be only 50 years, and on average the trees will be holding only about half as much carbon as they did initially (the other half of the carbon will be floating in the atmosphere).

  • Glenn Thompson

    From the commentary,

    “Unfortunately, almost all the Vermont renewable-energy projects — solar panels, wind turbines, biomass electric plants, etc. — are more for show than for effect.”

    I’m glad someone else out there understands the combo of Solar, wind, and Biomass will never reduce carbon emissions on this planet. Mr. Ohanian’s comments on the Middlebury college’s Biomass Heating plant is spot on! There is a reason why the EPA and others are cracking down on wood burning devices.

    Here is a good example how ‘wood burning’ is anything but carbon neutral.


  • David Lansman

    I’m entering this comment before any are showing publicly but I will bet, right out the gate, that Ohanion will be dressed-down for being a physicist and not a “climate scientist”.

    He’s right. And this is so common with all that happens in the “Cambridge of Vermont”.

    If Middlebury College were truly the environmental leader it claims to be it would have stopped building giant buildings years ago. It would not have pressed for the Vt. Gaz pipeline and the environment-slashing methane pipeline running to a Salisbury farm.

    It would not leave the campus ablaze with light every night. (Drive through at 10pm and see ow many of those huge (empty) buildings are lit up like Christmas trees.

    Of course it gets a pass because: Middlebury and it has Bill McKibben.

    Do as I say, not as I do.

  • Norm Etkind

    This is such a big topic it is hard to know where to start. The first, but least “sexy” thing we should be doing is reducing our use of fossil fuels. This was clearly shown by the studies performed by Vermont’s Thermal Energy Task Force that showed the most cost effective fuel use reductions would come from the commercial, industrial and institutional sectors. What are we doing about that? Not enough.

    Next, we still need to heat our buildings. We can use fossil fuels which almost all will agree is a non-renewable CO2 generating resource. We can use electric heat in it’s many forms, but you need to get the electricity somewhere and we need to keep in mind that solar production is minimal or non-existent when heating demand is greatest.

    In Vermont, we can use our abundant biomass in a sustainably harvested manner in clean burning appliances. I’ll second what Rob Williams had to say in a previous post, most climate scientists agree with the benefits of biomass use.

  • Rob Williams

    he international scientific environmental community including, the Kyoto Protocol, European Union &, EPA all consider High Efficiency Advanced Wood Heating systems, that use fuel that is sustainably harvested carbon neutral (like Middlebury College). The exception is that there are a few some studies that have been peer reviewed, that under specific conditions it may be consider “low carbon”/not quite carbon neutral. The EU Directive set goals for integrating high efficiency biomass to account for 56% of the renewable energy supply in the by 2020 (EU27a). In addition to it being carbon neutral or low carbon, it’s also beneficial to our local economy. It is the equivalent of Local Food with, the trickle-down reoccurring revenue generated through the fuel chain supply & equally beneficial for maintaining our Forest Health.

  • Don Dalton

    An excellent commentary, but I wonder if catastrophic warming isn’t also a “giddy state of mind?” For example, around the year 1985 we surpassed 350ppm of atmospheric CO2. Did sea level rise accelerate since then? Depends on whom you ask, but the short answer is “no.” https://tinyurl.com/go9nfxw. So are we then condemned to “catastrophic” sea level rise at 350 ppm since sea level rise occurred before then?
    One of the world’s experts on sea level, Nils-Axel Mörner, finds evidence that the Maldives are not sinking, that sea level rise isn’t catastrophic, and, most unhappily, that the satellite data that showed minimal rise was “adjusted,” without careful accounting, to show instead an alarming trend. https://tinyurl.com/4z6tk7o
    The Pacific islands aren’t sinking: that’s an empirical fact. http://www.bbc.com/news/10222679.
    Are we looking at this carefully or are we getting a bit “giddy”? If it can happen in Middlebury, it can happen anywhere.

  • ted lylis

    This is the most incredibly honest and accurate assessment yet. Extremely well done!

  • Steve North

    Carbon sequestration in forest trees is highly variable over their life times. As young, fast growing trees with plenty of space in between, their rapid growth equates to large sequestration rates. As those same trees grow larger and closer together the growth and sequestration rates decrease dramatically. In their climax state and slowed to no growth, their sequestration rates are basically zero. In forest stands with limited forestry practices (like the Adirondacks), this climax state / no sequestration can last for years and years. Once those same trees die and fall down and rot or get burned, all the sequestered carbon is realeased back into the atmosphere. Many of course are harvested into lumber, but who’s keeping track of which trees are doing what when selling off sets? It’s ridiculous.

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