Evergreen State College Sustainable-Energy Project Kaput After Clash of Greener-Than-Thou Crusaders

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Like many forward-thinking academic institutions, Evergreen State College has set a goal to become completely carbon-neutral. To do that, however, the school will have to ditch its primary source of heat and electricity: a natural-gas boiler that produces about 4,500 tons of carbon emissions each year. The college's Sustainability Council thought they'd found the solution--a "gasification chamber" fueled by wood chips left over from local logging operations--but a group of concerned citizens has succeeded in derailing the project by claiming it was not quite green enough for Evergreen.

Scott Morgan, the sustainability coordinator at Evergreen, says the college first proposed the gasification project about a year ago. He says that finding an affordable and environmentally friendly energy source in southwest Washington--especially one capable of powering more than a million square feet of Evergreen's Olympia campus--was a challenge, which is why they got the idea to use the region's most plentiful resource, timber.

"Nothing else is available here," Morgan tells 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."

Gasification plants (also known as wood gas generators) are fueled by wood chips, usually produced from the "slash piles" left over from commercial logging. When a company like Weyerhaeuser harvests trees from a stretch of land, they leave behind gnarled messes of limbs, stumps, and debris. These leftovers are so cheap--selling for about $25 per ton, usually to make wood pulp--that they are often burned in the middle of the forest.

The gasification chamber, Morgan explains, takes the wood chips and heats them in two separate chambers, pumping oxygen into one and out of the other. The flammable gases produced burn relatively cleanly, especially compared to traditional combustion furnaces.

Several schools, including the University of British Columbia, Middlebury, and Green Mountain College in Vermont have recently turned to gasification. The University of Auburn even has a mobile gasification chamber built onto the back of a semi-truck that can be used to provide emergency electricity for disaster-stricken areas.

But in the greater Olympia area and on the Evergreen campus, gasification was met with skepticism and outright hostility. Detractors, led by the group Concerned Citizens of Thurston County, claimed that the gasification chamber would actually increase carbon emissions, and, since it requires about 14,000 tons of wood chips annually to operate, ultimately contribute to deforestation. Others complained that the $14 million price tag to convert the campus natural-gas building was too costly, especially at a time when the state's higher-learning institutions are strapped for cash.

Local officials ultimately bowed to public pressure and instituted a one-year moratorium on biomass energy projects. The Tacoma News Tribune reports that last week Evergreen officials withdrew their request for a $3.7 million grant to help pay for a new heating and electric system, and announced they would no longer seek funding from the state for the project. (A separate, privately funded project, a $250 million commercial power plant that would have burned more than 600,000 tons of wood debris each year, was also scrapped in mid-March.)

In a letter to the school's staff and faculty, Steve Trotter, the chairman of Evergreen's Sustainability Council, said the moratorium played a part in abandoning the plan, writing that it "leaves the status of future codes and permitting related to biomass too uncertain to pursue the project."

Morgan, meanwhile, says the controversy that derailed the gasification project was the result of misinformation and resistance from the hardcore save-the-forest types at Evergreen.

"We knew it would be a difficult sell here on campus," Morgan says. "Evergreen identifies with the forest a lot. A lot of people on campus see themselves as forest protectors and do not support logging at all. We opened it up for study, but we got a lot of people who said 'It's already decided, this is bad.'"

Morgan points out that they planned to source their slash fuel from only forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures that the trees are grown, harvested, and manufactured in a sustainable way. He acknowledges that the gasification plant would actually increase direct carbon emissions from the campus--producing about 10,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year instead of 4,500 from the natural-gas operation--but says it's actually more ecologically friendly from the big-picture perspective.

"If you just look at what's coming out of the stack, you say 'Wow, that's terrible,'" Morgan says. "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."

Morgan says it's now back to the drawing board to meet the school's carbon-neutral goal. He says they'll likely continue to use natural gas, a fuel that burns cleanly but damages the environment in Wyoming and British Columbia where companies drill into the ground to obtain the fuel.

"We're going to have to find a compromise eventually," Morgan says. "Right now it seems like we don't want this affect in our own backyard; we want it in somebody else's backyard."

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