Willow experiment aims to generate renewable energy

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video iconWhile the majestic trees on Willow Path have the power to warm people’s hearts, a new 7½ -acre willow biomass farm on Hamilton Street will help heat the university.

Depending on the soil, weather, and overall conditions, last week’s planting of 60,000 8-inch shrub willow shoots should yield about 900 dry tons of biomass over a 20-year period — a drop in the proverbial bucket considering that Colgate currently burns about 100 tons of woodchips per day in its environmentally friendly steam-fired boiler.

But the small-scale experiment, made possible by the Class of 2008 gift to the Colgate Sustainability Fund, is an important first step.

The project grew out of ENST 480, an environmental studies seminar offered last spring. With the guidance of faculty members Ian Helfant, Robert Turner, and Beth Parks, four Colgate students — Jeremy Bennick ’08, Andrew Holway ’08, Elizabeth Juers ’08, and Rachel Surprenant ’08 — researched the feasibility of growing willow biomass on Colgate-owned land in order to reduce Colgate’s carbon emissions as well as its dependence on fossil fuels.

Workers with Double-A-Willow, of Fredonia, N.Y., plant willow shoots on Colgate-owned property on Hamilton Street. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

The report concluded that Colgate should experiment with willow production.

“Central New York represents an ideal place for willow production,” said Helfant, who spearheaded the three-year research and planning phase. “Down the road, we hope that Colgate can partner with local farmers or landowners to consider larger scale plantings.”

Colgate’s foray into willow farming is consistent with its commitment to increasing its use of renewable energy sources.

The university’s steam-generating wood-burning facility now satisfies more than 70 percent of the campus’s heat and domestic hot water needs, yet the price of woodchips continues to rise and there is growing concern over the greenhouse gas emissions generated while transporting the chips to campus.

ShootsOn the biomass project, Colgate is working with Double-A-Willow, a nursery in Fredonia, N.Y., dedicated to the renewable energy business.

By this fall, the shoots planted last week will be 3 to 8 feet tall. They then will be cut to just 1 to 2 inches above the ground, causing the willow to grow outward (bush-like), maximizing the rate of growth and total biomass over the next two growing seasons.

“This landmark event is an instructive example of how sustainability connects our curriculum to campus operations, said John Pumilio, Colgate’s new sustainability coordinator. “In a dynamic way, this project is an important step in Colgate’s ongoing pursuit to provide our university with 100 percent carbon-neutral, renewable energy.”