Evergreen State College Biomass Project Derailed
I was disappointed to learn that Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., had to shelve its $14 million biomass gasification plant project, possibly preventing the institution from reaching its goal of being completely carbon neutral by 2020.
"Nothing else is available here," Scott Morgan, the sustainability coordinator at Evergreen told Seattle Weekly. "We don't have sunshine, we don't have wind. The only other options locally are [geothermal] heat pumps, and they're about twice as expensive as the gasification. And we are in the middle of one of the largest timber-producing regions in the state."
The gasification system would have been fueled with slash piles left over from logging operations. These piles are often left to rot or burned. The system would have replaced the college’s natural-gas fired boiler, which emits 4,500 tons of carbon a year.
According to Morgan, direct carbon emissions from the gasification plant would have been about 10,000 tons, but people need to consider the carbon emissions of the decomposing wood left in the forest when making their calculations.
"If you just look at what's coming out of the stack, you say 'Wow, that's terrible,'" Morgan said. "What they don't want to count, and what a lot of people don't recognize, is that the slash left out in the forest to decompose—not even the stuff being burned, but just sitting on the ground—will emit something like 3,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases. If you start looking at what we avoid emitting by transferring emissions from the forest to the plant, it does come out as a net benefit."
What’s even more disappointing is that Thurston County, where the college is located, approved a one-year moratorium on biomass projects.
Opponents of the project worried about whether the plant would actually reduce carbon emissions and if there would be enough debris from forests to fuel the gasification system. In response, college officials said the project would reduce the campus’s carbon footprint by 3,290 metric tons per year and that it would use about 12,000 tons of wood debris a year, which is roughly 3 percent of the available forest wood debris in Thurston and Lewis counties.
Although university officials did their homework and tried to convince detractors, their efforts were met by deaf ears. Then the moratorium was approved and the rest is history.
I too am a skeptic, especially when it comes to spending millions of dollars, but I’m pretty sure most universities are not interested in spending money on projects that could potentially harm the environment.
I’m sure the university will continue its quest to become carbon neutral but with a lot less options with which to work.