John Rasmussen, energy manager at the Bates College facility services, points out a new burner on an old boiler in the Cullen Maintenance Center on Wednesday afternoon. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — After its first full winter using a new fuel oil created by turning plants into a burnable liquid, Bates College officials say they are on track to make the campus carbon-neutral by 2020.
The renewable fuel oil powers one of the three large boilers that produce steam that heats 28 buildings on campus, sharply reducing the college’s reliance on natural gas and decreasing the greenhouse gases it emits.
Almost every day during the winter, a tanker truck hauls 6,000 gallons of the fuel from a Canadian plant to Lewiston, where it is pumped into a 29-foot tall, stainless steel tank beside the Cutten Maintenance Center. The fuel then flows through a series of tubes to the boiler, where a large, stainless steel gun sprays “a fog of fuel” into the burner with near-perfect efficiency. The resulting flames heat the water enough to keep the entire Bates campus warm — on even the coldest winter nights.
John Rasmussen, energy manager at Bates, said he has burned 780,000 gallons of the new fuel since October without any serious problems, providing the bulk of the fuel Bates used. It still relies on natural gas for some of its heating.
Together with a wide variety of other conservation measures, the college has reduced its carbon footprint by at least 81 percent since 2001 as part of its effort to save both money and the climate.
College officials said Wednesday that given the success of the new low-carbon fuel, they may soon use it for a second boiler as well.
Geoffrey Swift, Bates’ vice president for finance and administration and treasurer, said the push to become carbon-neutral is something that students and faculty have demanded but it is also the “right thing to do” for the planet and the school’s bottom line.
Bates was one of eight colleges and universities in Maine that joined more than 100 others across the nation in 2007 to sign a pact to become “carbon neutral” by 2020. It promised to reduce institutional emissions of carbon-based greenhouse gases until they no longer added anything overall to the ominous rise of the gases in the atmosphere that are changing the world’s climate.
Bates called the effort “a large undertaking” but one that “is both possible and necessary.”
Tom Twist, the college’s sustainability manager, said Bates has taken a twofold approach to reduce its impact on the environment, focusing on its infrastructure on the one hand and its students on the other.
He said it has been “really successful” in getting students to help lead the way toward behavioral changes that make Bates greener.
One student-led initiative put an end to disposable hot beverage cups in the cafeteria, Twist said, by handing out bottles they could clip to their backpacks instead. That has kept 750,000 cups from winding up in the trash, he said.
Other ideas have focused on everything from a new vegetable garden to a bicycle repair station, Twist said. Many of them are the result of a grant program that puts up to $2,000 behind some innovative student suggestions, a program that gives students “control and ownership” of the projects they pursue.
But the big savings have come in areas that cost much more, especially utilities.
Twist said Bates has taken many steps to improve its energy efficiency, from putting lights on motion detectors to ensuring walls and windows are properly insulated.
Rasmussen said some other institutions have turned to biomass fuel to become more green in their utility use. They typically burn wood chips, a renewable source, in a heating system that takes a lot of space and costs a lot.
Bates tried something else.
Because it already had a central steam plant with three giant boilers that are reasonably efficient, it looked into the possibility of finding something better than natural gas to fuel their fires.
What it found was a Canadian firm, Ensyn, that learned how to create a liquid fuel from vaporizing plant material and then capturing the liquid oil that resulted when the air cooled, Rasmussen said.
Ensyn developed the technique three decades ago in order to create Liquid Smoke, a common kitchen ingredient. But it is pushing the new fuel as a green alternative with growing success.
A hospital in New Hampshire was already using the renewable fuel oil and its experience convinced Bates to give it a try, figuring they were not quite on the cutting edge – which can sometimes be a little problematic. Bates is happy to be in the advance wave of something they think could catch on in a serious way.
“This winter’s gone very well,” Rasmussen said.
Twist said that once Bates closes out the year, he is sure the college will be even closer to carbon neutrality because the new fuel was used the entire winter rather than just part of it, as in 2017.
Adding the fuel to a second boiler, he said, would bring Bates even closer to its goal. Other energy efficiency measures to windows, lighting and the like will push it over the line easily, he said.
Swift said the energy efficiency programs pay back their investment quickly enough to make them financially solid, even if they did not also help with the climate change problem. According to Rasmussen, the renewable fuel investment ought to pay for itself within five years.
Bates’ success has received notice. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, – an international sustainability rating agency – ranked Bates in fourth place worldwide in the clean energy category for 2017.
Given all the competition, Twist said, “That’s pretty amazing.”
Several other Maine colleges have already achieved their carbon-neutral goals, including Bowdoin and Colby colleges. Colby got there back in 2013, while Bowdoin last week announced its success in reaching the mark.
Twist said Bates has two big issues on which it tends to focus: social justice and sustainability.
“As a world, we’re doing such a bad job at those two things,” Twist said.
But they are, he said, “the pillars of what people will care about for several decades to come.”
A large fuel container holds several cold winter days’ worth of fuel. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)