United States / Renewable Energy

The Questionable Nature of Carbon Neutrality

The city of Burlington, Vermont, sits along beautiful Lake Champlain in a valley between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. It is home to Bernie lovers, University of Vermont students, and dozens of farm-to-table restaurants. Sitting on a bench in downtown Burlington, you can notice the distinctive character of Burlington: hybrids are the preferred car; smoking in most pedestrian areas is illegal; and Birkenstocks (with socks), Patagonia, and L.L. Bean are the most popular clothing brands. Even in the city, Vermont’s citizens express their close connection to the natural environment, helping to make the state of 630,000 the greenest in the nation.

In September 2014, Burlington was nationally recognized as the the first city in the United States to run entirely on renewable energy. Burlington’s utility officials began discussing the idea over a decade ago and launched the project four years later.

The city’s renewable energy depends on four controversial wind turbines on a nearby mountain, an extensive array of solar panels at Burlington International Airport, and the J.C. McNeil Generating Station. The generating station produces almost all of Burlington’s energy, generating fifty megawatts of electricity when at full capacity. This means at peak capacity on hot summer days or cold winter nights, the plant will produce fifty megawatts for four hours and decrease for the next two. In 2015, the city used 353,730 megawatt hours total.

The plant works by using plant waste that comes from nearby farms and forestries, which is then burned to boil water. The steam turns a generator, which provides electricity to the city. The plant uses seventy-six tons of wood, or five hundred fifty thousand cubic feet of gas, per hour (sometimes a combination of both), along with forty-two thousand gallons of cooling water flowing per minute.

This process is considered renewable because, in theory, it is “carbon-neutral.” The carbon in biomass is considered to be a part of the natural carbon cycle because trees take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into biomass, releasing it back into the atmosphere when they die.

The State of Vermont plans to expand this new system of renewability by building smaller biomass plants, wind turbines, and solar panels in more rural areas. An hour south of Burlington, in Middlebury, Vermont, Middlebury College has reached a significant milestone with its shiny new $12-million biomass gasification plant in the middle of campus. This plant “connects climate, energy, and community for a more sustainable energy future,” and allowed Middlebury to reach its carbon neutral goal in 2016.

In Waterville, Maine, Colby College has a similar system in place. Annually, their $11.25-million biomass plant replaces about one million gallons of heating fuel with twenty-two thousand tons of wood sources annually. This plant not only allowed Colby to decrease its reliance on oil by ninety percent, but it also enabled them to claim carbon neutrality back in 2013, which made the school one of four carbon neutral universities in the U.S. at the time.

Biomass plants like these effectively reduce the use of oil and energy, but often their perceived renewable benefits lead to a culture of false glorification and complacency.

The “eco-friendly” stamp on the McNeil Generating Station in Burlington is a bit misleading. The station does allow Burlington to be powered by seemingly renewable energy, but it is the biggest cause of pollution in Vermont. Although the state has the lowest emissions in the nation, its biggest greenhouse gas polluters still fail to meet the state’s goal of reducing emissions to seventy-five percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The big six polluters accounted for nearly eight hundred fifty thousand metric tons (about ten percent of Vermont’s total emissions) in 2013. The McNeil Generating Station leads the pack, accounting for forty-two percent of the state’s large facility emissions and releasing 355,606 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011.

Power supply manager John Irving sees the plant’s renewability as a “closed cycle,” where tree growth and reabsorption of carbon dioxide enables a sustainable cycle. Conversely, other scientists argue that wood is less efficient and takes a long time to grow back, leading to a surplus of carbon that does not get accounted for on paper. In reality, we are producing carbon pollutants faster than the trees can soak them up. Until more research is conducted, the verdict is still up in the air, and therefore we cannot claim that biomass plants are renewable.

Middlebury’s biomass heating plant does not escape this predicament. Earlier this year, Vermont physicist and author Hans C. Ohanian wrote a charged editorial to the Vermont Digger explaining how he sees the plant as “horse shit rolled in sugar and sold as doughnuts.” He charges Middlebury’s new biomass plant with producing about thirty percent more carbon dioxide than it previously did by fuel oil. In short, his analysis claims that Middlebury is deleting twenty-two thousand tons of carbon dioxide emissions from their carbon balance sheet because they consider woodchips a sustainable source even though uncertainty still lingers. Since these eliminated emissions are the largest and most prominent, Middlebury’s supposed carbon neutrality is suspect.

This ambiguity, fairly apparent at small liberal arts colleges such as those in the NESCAC, seems to come from the race for carbon neutrality and the glamour that comes with it. Some NESCAC schools, such as Colby, reached carbon neutrality earlier in the decade, inspiring schools such as Bowdoin and Middlebury to quicken their pursuit. The desire to trailblaze the new era of environmentalism drives growth in eco-technology and eco-culture, but some institutions have chosen to cut corners.

Colby and Middlebury have both reached carbon neutrality through uncertain means. Bowdoin is not expected to reach neutrality until 2020 because of how the college’s heating system runs as well as how the college approaches new technology. Although Bowdoin students may be competitive about reaching neutrality, we should be thankful that the college wants to complete this milestone in the right way.

Although biomass plants in Vermont may be insignificant in scale relative to the entire country, they serve as important case studies for this discussion. As of 2012, over thirty-eight states have biomass facilities like the McNeil Generating Station, which means that there are over two hundred biomass plants in our country helping to reduce gas dependency while quietly contributing unknown amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

I do not wish to entirely discredit these plants as they are a good first step toward renewable energy, but they may unintentionally be hurting environmental progress. Often, when communities are looking to become environmentally active, they grasp at what seems green and effective in that moment. Buzzwords like “renewable” and “carbon neutral” inspire a feeling of success, so no one asks questions. As a result, details like greenhouse gas emissions are lost in the fine print, and the problem goes unsolved.

Instead of acknowledging that our progress is in fact a small step towards renewability, our culture has come to see “environmentally friendly” systems like these biomass plants as scientifically vetted triumphs that push us towards a greener world.

Citizens who strive for a higher standard of environmentalism need to step back and recognize that a sustainable future will only be achievable if we scrutinize every aspect of our work. This means biomass heating facilities must consider wood sources as non-renewable until proven otherwise. It also means generating plants like Burlington’s McNeil Generating Station must continue to lower carbon emissions until more efficient electricity sources become available.

Furthermore, it is imperative that businesses are transparent when it comes to public data. Nowhere on the McNeil site will you see any mention of it being the biggest polluter in Vermont, only a rather defensive statement claiming their “air quality control devices limit the particulate stack emissions to one-tenth the level allowed by Vermont state regulation.” That sounds pretty good to a regular reader, but you must consider what those regulation levels actually are before evaluating where the plant stands on emissions and pollution.

At the same time, it is just as important to acknowledge each citizen’s responsibility to do research before instantly believing what they read on company websites. This research includes finding information from multiple angles, whether that be news sources and editorials like Ohanian’s in the Vermont Digger, state data, or programs like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. We must work especially hard to find these truths, given the threat the Trump administration poses to the EPA. If planned policies like increased military spending in favor of reduced EPA funding are implemented, this action could prevent further research on biomass fuels, therefore leaving the assertion of biomass plant renewability unchecked.

Ultimately, if we want to create social and environmental change we must be willing to put in the work and look below the surface. When we find the truth, we will find the solution.