Carbon Neutrality and Biomass

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The use of wood chips as Colgate University’s primary energy source for heating and hot water was an important component of its efforts to becoming the first university in New York State to achieve carbon neutrality in 2019.

Colgate’s use of wood chips to power its steam boiler is considered carbon neutral by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which establishes the nation’s most widely used greenhouse gas accounting standards. While this might seem counterintuitive to some, Colgate Director of Sustainability John Pumilio explains how biomass heats our campus and lowers our carbon footprint.

“Colgate purchases all of our wood chips — about 8,000 tons per year — from Gutchess Lumber Co., Inc. in Vernon, N.Y., less than 20 miles away from campus,” Pumilio says. “The wood chips are a byproduct of the mill’s operations and ultimately sourced from well-managed state and private forests. This includes Gutchess’ own 29,000-acre forest, which has been owned and sustainably managed by the company for more than a century. As long as there is no land-use change,  the use of Gutchess’ wood chips in Colgate’s wood boiler is a climate solution.”

Sustainably managed working forests can be an important aspect of combating climate change, Pumilio says. As young trees grow, they actively capture carbon from the atmosphere, but as they age, the amount of carbon they take in decreases. Harvesting those trees makes way for new growth that can continue the cycle of carbon sequestration. The harvested trees taken to Gutchess Lumber are then milled and used in a variety of furniture and building applications, storing the carbon held within the wood for generations.

“Arguments against the carbon neutrality of wood can be validated under certain circumstances, but some of the research against the use of biomass assumes that the source of wood is coming from clear-cut forests or a land-use change, or that it’s shipped long distances for electric generation in large-scale power plants,” Pumilio said. “Colgate’s use of biomass is entirely different. It’s a small, local operation using wood for steam in a state where forest biomass and growth continue to increase year over year.”

The use of these wood chips not only saves the University money, as wood is cheaper than fossil fuels over the long term, but also supports Colgate’s sustainability goals set forth in The Third-Century Plan, because locally produced wood is a renewable resource and a win for the climate when used in place of fossil fuels.