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US college urged to rethink new biomass heating plant over emissions concerns

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Calls for a US college to rethink its plan to build a biomass heating plant have escalated after a public forum was opened.

Attendees at the forum – which was intended to discuss potential locations for the plant – voiced their concerns that the planned project by Dartmouth College could worsen air pollution in Hanover, New Hampshire. The current heating system is fuelled by a 1.5-acre oil-burning power plant located in downtown Hanover. Moving to biomass and biofuel would mean that the college could stop using almost 3.5 million gallons of no.6 oil annually.

Dartmouth College initially put its detailed plans forward in January to change the way that heat is produced and delivered on campus, changing from steam heat to hot-water heat to improve efficiency by 20%.

In a statement from the college, executive vice-president Rick Mills said: “With this important initiative, Dartmouth is keeping the promise we made on Earth Day 2017. This work has been eight years in the making with research and planning from the Sustainability Office, Campus Services and from faculty, staff, students and trustees.”

Rosi Kerr, the college’s director of sustainability, added: “This new plant represents a huge step forward for Dartmouth, and it meets two important goals of the green future roadmap. It gets us off no.6 fuel oil and it establishes a more efficient system to distribute energy across campus.”

Plans for the plant also revealed it would be fitted to burn liquid biofuel on the coldest days of the year, which can be produced from vegetable and other oils, animal fat and soybeans.

Those opposing the new $200 million (€181 million) biomass plant are urging the college to consider renewable technologies such as heat pumps, solar and wind instead. Dartmouth College's vice-president for institutional projects, Josh Keniston, told forum attendees that they had investigated alternative heat sources, but that none were ‘economical’ or could heat the campus ‘reliably’.

Concerns were echoed by arguments put forward by three scientists and Dartmouth alumni, who warned that the plant could ‘substantially increase’ the college’s carbon emissions. The key concerns relate to cutting back forests and burning wood, which would release carbon into the atmosphere. Those working on the project have stressed that the plant would use sustainably-sourced wood and that it is more environmentally-friendly than energy-producing plants.

It is hoped that the college’s new biomass plant will begin operations in 2025.