December 30, 2010

Biomass plant to help power Colby College

By Amy Calder
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- Colby College is building an $11 million biomass plant that will replace most of the college's oil consumption by burning wood for heat, hot water, cooking and electrical needs.

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An artist’s rendering of a planned $11 million biomass plant at Colby College that will burn wood instead of fuel, producing 90 percent of the campus’ energy.

Photo courtesy of Colby College

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The plant will be 15,800 square feet in size with an 8,100-square-foot footprint. The multi-level facility is being built next to the college's current steam plant off Campus Drive, which runs along Johnson Pond.

Completion of the plant would make Colby the first college in Maine to operate a biomass plant of this scale, according to the college.

"We're not aware of any colleges in Maine that do this type of biomass," said Patricia Murphy, director of Colby's physical plant.

The biomass plant is expected to save the college about $1 million annually once it pays for itself in 6 to 10 years, according to Murphy.

Officials expect there will be a shakedown period for working out any bugs in the new facility, and that period will last from October through December 2011, according to Murphy.

The plant is expected to be fully operational by January 2012, she said.

Designed to reduce the college's carbon emissions, the plant will burn about 22,000 tons of local wood chips and forest waste such as bark and tree tops annually, replacing 90 percent of the 1.1 million gallons of heating oil it currently uses per year, according to college spokeswoman Ruth Jacobs. The wood would come from forest operations located within 50 miles of Colby.

The initiative moves the college closer to its goal of "carbon neutrality" by 2015.

Twin 400-horsepower, biomass-fueled boilers will produce the steam needed for heat, hot water, cooking and co-generation of electricity.

Murphy said many students, faculty and staff have expressed interest in such a project, asking, 'If we're not conscious about our own carbon footprint, how can we really be leaders?'"

In 2003, Colby moved to 100 percent renewable electricity sources, according to Jacobs. The college has a contract with the firm Constellation Energy, which provides the college's electricity through hydro, biomass and wind power sources.

In addition, a co-generation turbine on campus provides about 10 percent of the college's electrical needs from steam-plant exhaust.

All of this effort has helped establish a market for green power in Maine and led to national recognition for green power use, Jacobs said.

Colby has for three years been named by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a "green power champion" within its athletic conference. Colby had the highest percentage among participating colleges and universities nationwide in 2007-08 and 2008-09, and the second-highest percentage in 2009-10, Jacobs said.

Middlebury College and Green Mountain College, both located in Vermont, have biomass plants, and Colby officials visited those facilities when planning for the college's biomass plant, according to Murphy.

She said the current steam plant will serve as a backup for the biomass plant. Both buildings will be attached.

Jacobs expects that during peak times, in December and January, the college will use wood-burning as its major source of power.

A sophisticated emissions system will be part of the plant, whose plans were approved this fall by both the city and the state Department of Environmental Protection, Murphy said.

Colby currently has only one heating fuel source -- oil -- and had been looking for an alternative source, according to Murphy. Officials have been working on the biomass plant idea for about four years, she said.

Work on the plant started in October. It will have a glass exterior that will allow walkers or motorists to view its inner workings, according to Murphy.

Amy Calder -- 861-9247

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