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Opponents To Biomass Plant Ask Dartmouth To Consider Other Options

Flickr Creative Commons / Brave Sir Robin
Credit Flickr Creative Commons / Brave Sir Robin

About 60 people attended a public forum Wednesday night about potential sites for Dartmouth College’s proposed biomass plant.

While some questions focused on the three possible sites for the plant, more audience members challenged the idea of having a biomass plant at all, asking the college to consider solar or other technologies.

The plant is part of Dartmouth's plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2025. The biomass plant would produce energy for a new hot water heating system at the college.

Allan Waters has lived in Hanover for 26 years. He asked if the college had considered using heat pumps instead, because he says, even if it makes economic sense for Dartmouth, there's an environmental cost to burning wood for fuel.

“It's not truly competitive if you include the cost of the damage to the environment,” he said. “If that’s not added into these analyses going forward, I’m going to be forming a group going forward.”

Three prominent Dartmouth alumni wrote a letter  in July opposing the biomass plant, arguing that large scale tree harvesting would make biomass a non-renewable resource.  (Scroll down to read the letter in full) They wrote a new biomass plant would increase, not reduce, the school’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Josh Keniston, vice president for institutional projects, says Dartmouth did consider other options. “In our series of logic, we got to a point where we couldn’t figure out how to make a non-combustion scenario work. With all the combustion-based sources, we felt most comfortable with the risk profile of biomass.”

Dartmouth estimates its system would be 89% efficient, recovering more energy than biomass plants that produce energy for electricity.

Keniston said the college had looked at solar, geothermal and heat pumps options, but they’re more costly, and because of the scale of the plant, there would still need to be a combustion back-up.

“These systems were looking to have five times the initial upfront cost and three times the operating cost,” he said. “But we recognize those are the future and that’s why we’re comfortable investing so much in the hot water component of this, which ultimately allows us to adopt these things over time as they become more effective.”

Others expressed concerns about air quality and a potential increase in traffic due to the transport of fuel for the plant. Keniston said there would be a seasonal variation from three to 15 trucks a day.  

Christine Foley, a Hanover resident, says she’s concerned about possible health consequences of emissions from the wood burning plant.

"So I have grave concerns because we are in a valley. Particulate matter, the smaller it is, it gets stuck in your lungs and it doesn't come out,” she said.

After the meeting, Keniston said he understands the complexity of this issue.

“There are a lot of different paths forward on this,” he said. “There are different versions of what the biomass plant could look like, different versions of where it could be sited, different paths in terms of how we adopt these other technologies.”

The college plans to have a site selected in September and forums later this fall on sourcing wood for the plant.


Read the letter from the Dartmouth alumni:

And the response from Dartmouth's VP of Institutional Projects and Director of Sustainability:

Copyright 2021 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

Daniela is NHPR's Couch Fellow for Innovation.
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