Should Dartmouth Heat its Campus with Wood Chips?

Before sizing its new biomass heating plant, the Dartmouth College should engage in aggressive energy efficiency measures to reduce the amount of heat needed by each building.
By John Ackerly | September 07, 2019

When I went to Dartmouth in the late 1970s, I learned about the dangers of splitting atoms in a reactor to heat water into steam that turned generators to make electricity. We all joined the Clamshell Alliance, piled into cars and went down to Seabrook, New Hampshire, to protest the building of a new reactor. There, 550 people were arrested and held for 13 days. My grades were shaky enough without missing two weeks of classes so I didn’t get arrested, but I learned more about energy, activism and politics than I ever could have in a classroom.

Meanwhile, no one questioned the No. 6 heating oil that was heating the campus. That was a nonissue. The smokestack loomed over the south side of the campus and was known more among my rock-climbing friends as one of the scariest things to climb in the dark. None of us had ever heard of climate change.

While the science of climate change began unfolding in the 1970s as scientists began putting the puzzle pieces together, it wasn’t until the 1990s that studies and computer models were proving the connections between carbon and the gradual warming of the earth. And New Hampshire was part of the problem. It wasn’t just the rapid increase of cheap fossil fuels. In 1900, as a result of massively unsustainable deforestation across the New England, Europe and other areas, global warming had very slowly begun. 

Around our house in New Hampshire in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, hundreds of fields were still in the process of being absorbed back into forest. Today, New Hampshire’s forests are crisscrossed with old stone walls—a silent, enduring testament to a state that was rapaciously logged for sheep farms, lumber and fuel. Before he died, one of the only things my father made me promise him was to keep our field mowed every year so it didn’t become forest. 

By 2010, climate change was accepted by virtually all scientists, and like many movements, students on campuses across the country were on the forefront of pushing their institutions to do something about it. Dartmouth is not among the top 10, or even top 20, on most lists of campuses tackling climate change, but by 2017, it came up with an ambitious roadmap that included switching from No. 6 heating oil to wood chips. The project is steadily moving forward, but in July, several prominent Dartmouth alumni published an open letter calling on the college to scrap plans for a biomass heating plant. The letter mostly addressed carbon issues and concluded that switching to biomass would increase Dartmouth’s carbon emissions. While anti-biomass activists have had some success with the slogan that biomass is worse than coal, the real question has a lot do to with timing. Few scientists question that biomass, if harvested sustainably, has solid, long-term benefits in reducing carbon compared to fossil fuels. Carbon benefits start accruing between five and 100 years, depending on who you talk to, and where the wood chips come from. If your sole source of wood chips was from standing, old-growth forests, a 100-year payback may not be an outrageous claim. If you rely on waste wood from lumber operations, five years is more realistic.

Dartmouth has done its homework and is in this for the long-term.  It has based its projections off peer-reviewed scientific assessments of biomass heating, and it understands the capacity of local forestry operations to provide low-grade wood that will be losing its carbon content quickly, whether it’s used to offset fossil fuels or not. Middlebury College has a similar system, as do many other northeastern colleges. 

My family’s house is only about 15 miles north of the Dartmouth campus. It’s on a dead-end dirt road, and every year, hundreds of trucks loaded with sawmill-grade lumber pass our house to help meet our nation’s demand for wood products. A lot of it ends up in the walls of our homes, on our floors and in our furniture. When it’s processed, it makes mountains of sawdust—and mountains of chips. 

On our dirt road is also more than a hundred homes, and probably about half have wood stoves for primary or secondary heating. Some of our neighbors used wood to cook their food and heat their water, and there a few of them left. They delayed becoming part of the generations of people who joined the fossil fuel revolution, living on land that produced wood for hundreds of years, going through the “carbon debt” cycles many, many times. But the wood smoke produced by each of their homes, including ours, is far, far worse than what will be coming from the new Dartmouth heating plant. If people around Dartmouth are concerned about particulate matter in wood smoke, they can tackle it more easily by reducing residential wood heating, rather than worrying  about the incredibly high-tech scrubbers that will make the Dartmouth plant run without visible emissions other than steam. 

The open letter by Dartmouth alumni opposing the biomass heating plant raises some good points, and one I want to wholeheartedly endorse: Before sizing the plant, the college should engage in aggressive energy efficiency measures to reduce the amount of heat needed by each building. That, together with a renewable source of heat, will help set Dartmouth on a path of responsible sustainability for decades to come.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat