Middlebury College announced today that it has met its goal of a net zero carbon emissions footprint by the end of 2016, fulfilling a commitment made in 2007 by then-president Ronald D. Liebowitz and making Middlebury the fourth college campus in the U.S. to declare itself carbon neutral.
Nearly all of the current carbon footprint will be offset by carbon credits earned from a land trust agreement on 2,100 acres of College-owned forest land in the Bread Loaf Wilderness in Ripton, Vt. The tract will be protected through a conservation easement held by the Vermont Land Trust.
The College established the Bread Loaf Preservation Fund in 2014 to preserve the land “in perpetuity.” The fund is financed in part by the Moore Charitable Foundation, which is chaired by Louis Bacon ’79, a conservation philanthropist and a College trustee.
Bluesource LLC, a privately-held firm based in Utah, conducted field studies on the tract in October and November to estimate the amount of carbon sequestered in the forest. Another party will have to independently verify this number before the College can apply to the American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit organization that issues official carbon credits that can be bought and sold on a market.
Once the College receives its credits — which are expected to exceed the 12,905 metric tons of carbon necessary to reach net zero emissions — it will sell the remainder of them.
The idea for carbon neutrality at Middlebury first came about in the late 1990s. It gained traction when the Environmental Council started a project called the Carbon Reduction Initiative in 2002. They presented a report to the Board of Trustees recommending that the College reduce its carbon footprint by levels specified in the Kyoto Protocol — 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
The report proposed projects that could reduce the College’s fossil fuel consumption levels. The trustees approved one of these projects, the biomass gasification plant, in 2006. The plant cost $12 million and burns about 24,000 tons of woodchips purchased from local timber companies.
During gasification, wood chips are super-heated in an oxygen deprived environment to the point that they smolder and release gases. The gases are then ignited to heat the boiler, producing steam. The filters in the biomass facility are rated to remove 99.7 percent of the particulates from the exhaust.
Biomass gasification at this plant is considered carbon neutral becauses the forests that supply the wood chips are growing at a faster rate than timber is being harvested. Local foresters frequently verify the growth rate of the forests, according to Mike Moser, director of Facilities Services.
In 2006, student activists in Sunday Night Group, emboldened by the trustee’s approval of the biomass plant, proposed to then-president Liebowitz that the College pledge to become carbon neutral. He agreed to let them present to the trustees at their next meeting. In May 2007, with Liebowitz’s backing, the trustees formally resolved to make the campus carbon neutral by the end of 2016.
Beginning in 2012, the College financed three solar projects to source some of its electricity. One solar farm is along College Street, across from the recycling center; another is called South Ridge on state Route 7 in Middlebury; and a third is being constructed at Wilber Electric in Pittsford, Vt. The College has also financed 87 renewable energy projects, including a manure digester being constructed at Goodrich Farm in Salisbury, Vt., which will turn cow manure into methane gas that can be used to heat campus buildings.
At the end of fiscal year 2016, carbon emissions totaled 13,539 metric tons. For the past nine years, Middlebury College Snow Bowl has purchased an average of 590 metric tons annually in carbon credits from Native Energy, which funds renewable energy projects and is based in Burlington, Vt. The sequestered carbon in the Bread Loaf forest will provide at least 12,905 metric tons worth of carbon offsets, enough to yield a balance of zero carbon emissions.
The College was emitting 14,473 metric tons of carbon at the close of fiscal year 2015. It reached neutrality in the past fiscal year in part by consuming 70 percent less in No. 6 oil and using compressed natural gas to make up the lost energy. But the offsets certified by the American Carbon Registry for the sequestered carbon in the Bread Loaf forest — offsetting 85 percent of 2015 emissions alone — were the most significant factor in reaching net zero carbon emissions since the biomass plant was completed in 2009.
“An awful lot of carbon neutrality is definitional,” said Churchill Franklin ’71 of Cornwall, Vt., a benefactor of the Franklin Environmental Center, in a video posted on the College’s Vimeo channel. “By some definitions, there’s plenty of work still to do.”
Credits from the sequestered carbon will hold their value for five years, according to Jack Byrne, director of sustainability integration. A third party must reassess the sequestration credit values by conducting field work at the five year mark, and can adjust the values if the studies show changes. If the credits lose all their value, the College will have to find another solution for maintaining carbon neutrality, Byrne said. But the College is always looking to make the campus more energy efficient and to do more with less, he said.
Representatives for the College projected pride in making the announcement today, reflecting on the success of an idea nearly sixteen years in the making.
“I am thrilled to announce this significant moment in Middlebury’s history of environmental leadership,” said Laurie L. Patton, the College’s president, in a statement. “I encourage the campus community to pause and reflect on the importance of this achievement and recognize the visionary work of so many people who brought us to this point.”
Nan Jenks-Jay, dean of environmental affairs, said that achieving net zero emissions was a collaborative project that was driven considerably by student input.
“This is really about an institution committing to bold sustainability goals, collaborating and innovating with learning and leadership at the core,” Jenks-Jay said. “Middlebury’s carbon neutrality achievement demonstrates how a community can engage in bringing about important environmental solutions — solutions that are more important each day.”
The announcement comes amid President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition to the White House, which has dogged environmental activists because of Trump’s promises to bring back coal and to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement signed by President Obama earlier this year. When asked about how President-elect Trump’s environmental agenda will affect the College’s sustainability efforts, Byrne said he sees the College continuing to serve as a model for other institutions seeking to take local initiative.
“A lot of the significant progress in this area has taken place at the local and state level over the years,” Byrne said. “What goes on at the federal and global level is extremely important, and policy and tone matter a lot. But in the absence of that — which we may have, or we may have less of — I think it’s important to continue to show how you can do this on your own.”
The College, he said, “can promote and inspire and encourage others — not just educational institutions — to show that you can do this environmentally, economically and morally.”