Environmental Column: Willow Power

Seventy-six percent of Colgate’s winter heat is generated in a sustainable manner right here on campus at the woodchip burning facility next to the Huntington Gymnasium. The facility has been operating since the early 1980s and annually converts around 20,000 tons of harvested woodchips into heat for Colgate’s buildings. The plant has an enormous impact on Colgate’s carbon footprint; it reduced overall emissions by about 14,000 metric tons last year alone. When considering that Colgate’s total carbon footprint for the 2008-2009 school year was around 18,000 metric tons, it becomes apparent that the woodchip plant greatly mitigates Colgate’s contribution to anthropogenic climate change.

Burning wood chips is considered a carbon-neutral form of energy production. The woodchips come from trees that took carbon out of the atmosphere when they were alive. Replanting trees at the same rate as harvesting woodchips does not add extra carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. When fossil fuels are burned, however, new CO2. is introduced. By burning woodchips, carbon that was already in the atmosphere before it was absorbed by the trees is simply released once more. Growing trees specifically for burning balances out the emissions when they are burned.

One criticism made against woodchip burning is that while the woodchips themselves do not produce emissions, the transportation of the chips from the location at which they are grown to the location they are burned does. This is where Colgate’s willow plantation comes in. Started by a group of Environmental Studies seminar students last year, the idea behind the plantation is that if Colgate plants willows close to campus for use in the woodchip plant, the woodchips would not have to be transported great distances. While only a small pilot project, the plantation could have huge implications in the future.

Currently Colgate is growing four varieties of willow on a 7 1/2 acre lot less than a mile from Campus down Hamilton Road. The lot is expected to provide around 900 tons of willow chips over the next 20 years. However, this is only a tiny percentage of what would be needed to fully support Colgate’s heating needs. In a single Hamilton winter day the plant can easily go through 100 tons of chips.

Thus, the plantation project is essentially an experiment. If successful, many hope that it will lead to the purchase of more land for Colgate to grow willows or perhaps inspire local farmers to grow willows on unused land that they could then sell to Colgate. Currently the trees are thin shoots only a few feet high but they will soon be cut in order to encourage faster, fuller growth. The first harvest for use in the plant is expected to take place in three years time.