Joules for Schools: Middlebury College leads trend towards renewable natural gas on the campus

September 16, 2019 |

In Vermont, representatives from Vanguard Renewables, Middlebury College, Vermont Gas, Goodrich Farm, and the State of Vermont were on hand the other day to celebrate the official groundbreaking for the largest anaerobic digester east of the Mississippi, with Middlebury will be the primary consumer of the RNG produced at the dairy farm.

But the students should have been on hand, really.

As Vanguard CEO John Hanselman told the Digest, Middlebury had an innovative had a 2016 net zero carbon campaign, and it was the students who called tBS on the series of carbon sequestration credits that were used, on their forest land and so forth. And the students back in 2015-16 and the faculty said “Let’s get real” and create an offset for the thermal load not just the power. Northern institutions have a big energy suck because of the long winters, and that’s how they came around to anaerobic digestion.”

“We came in once the program conceptualized,” Hanselman added. “They knew they should have a digest component, they didn’t know how to do it. We were able to show them on Massachusetts farms how it can work, and how it can fit into the educational mission. Once we got in front of the president and the board of trustees, they were incredibly willing to do it.”

The project

Wellesley, Mass.-based Vanguard Renewables will build, own, and operate the digester, which will process 100 tons of manure and 180 tons of organic food waste daily into RNG. Vanguard is currently contacting local and Vermont-based food manufacturers to source the food waste. Vermont Gas has begun construction on Halladay Road on a 5-mile pipeline that will connect the farm with the company’s pipeline network in Addison County.

Construction on the Farm Powered anaerobic digester will be completed in 2020. RNG produced there will travel by pipeline to Middlebury College’s main power plant. Once the digester is operating, the gas it creates will supply about half of the energy that Middlebury uses for heating and cooling. The College’s biomass plant will continue to produce the other 50 percent. Both sources provide some of the College’s electricity.

The digester is expected to produce 180,000 Mcf per year. (A Mcf is 1,000 cubic feet of renewable natural gas.) The College will buy 100,000 Mcf of the gas from Vanguard, Vermont Gas will buy 40,000 Mcf, and Vanguard will retain 40,000 Mcf.

The digester’s benefits to the farm include free heat for farm use, high-quality liquid fertilizer that will reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers, and a reduction in the farm’s phosphorus levels and greenhouse gas emissions. An annual lease payment for hosting the digester will diversify the farm’s revenue sources. Located on more than 2,400 acres, the Goodrich Family Farm is a generational dairy farm with 900 milking cows. It is a member of the Agri-Mark Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

Vanguard currently owns and operates five other digesters that are all located in Massachusetts. The facility at the Goodrich Farm will be the company’s first in Vermont.

Spreading some good

“The collaboration with Middlebury is our first with a college,” added Hanselman. “There isn’t another college in the country that’s in a partnership with a digester. Middlebury is a true leader in this regard.”

On the tail of the Middlebury program, Hanselman noted that Vanguard is now actively out talking with ‘a dozen other colleges and universities’ who have similar goals.

“Another exciting aspect of the digester is how it further connects the College to the local community and Vermont,” said Laurie Patton, Middlebury president. “The College’s interest in pursuing the facility also reflects our longstanding commitment to innovative environmental education and sustainability projects. Building on our carbon neutrality initiative, it will provide our students and faculty with new research and teaching opportunities.”

Reaction from the Stakeholders

“One of the key components of Middlebury’s Energy 2028 plan is to shift the College completely to the use of renewable energy,” said David Provost, Middlebury’s executive vice president for finance and administration. “The digester is fundamental to this change.”

“The project is an exciting development in Vermont’s dairy industry and the Goodrich family deserve credit for their leadership,” said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts. “We hope a project like this sparks more innovative partnerships that include other Vermont farms.”

“Our energy landscape is changing, faster than ever. Vermont Gas (VGS) is committed to be a leader in this transformation. Through innovation, efficiency, and adding renewable natural gas to our fuel supply, we are giving customers essential tools to reduce their carbon footprint and make Vermont even greener in the decades ahead,” said Don Rendall, president and CEO of VGS. “We are the first local distribution company in the country to offer customers renewable natural gas service. This project, will bring a local source of RNG – helping a local farm, enhancing local sustainability, contributing to our local economy. This will be another big win for Addison County, for Vermont, and for our planet.

Using 100 percent renewable energy sources is one of the components outlined in Middlebury’s Energy 2028 plan that the College announced in January. The 10-year plan also calls for reducing energy usage by 25 percent, divesting Middlebury’s endowment of investments in fossil fuels, and educating and involving the entire campus community in its implementation.

The Bottom Line

Students are calling for positive action on climate change. Amazing that this is the very first project involving a campus and anaerobic digestion. Some of that has to do with the triangulation of a campus to use the RNG for heat, and a farm close enough and large enough to supply it. Though it’s not hard to connect farms to campuses via pipelines.

And, not every campus across the nation uses as much heat as the northern schools.

Yet, we’d be surprised and disappointed if students all over the country didn’t propose this model for their own campuses. What a positive and local way to do some good.

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