Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Credit: Phyllis Graber-Jensen / Bates College

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Bates College says conversion to a wood-based liquid heating fuel helped it eliminate campus emissions.

Canadian biocrude made from processed wood waste has helped a Maine private college hit its goal of becoming carbon neutral a year ahead of schedule.

Bates College, a private liberal arts school in Lewiston, Maine, had used natural gas and oil boilers for hot water and winter heating of its 1.1-million-square-foot campus, much of which was built just after the Civil War.

A climate action plan earlier this decade identified the heating system as a major source of emissions where improvements could have a significant impact.

Tom Twist, sustainability manager for Bates, said the school started with efficiency upgrades before seeking fuel alternatives.

“We looked at a biomass chip plant but the price tag was quite high, around $10 million,” Twist said. It would have required a new boiler, a system to capture particulate matter from burning biomass, a hopper for storage and numerous truck deliveries.

The college’s energy manager then heard about new liquid, wood-based fuel that would work more easily with the school’s existing plant.

Canadian company Ensyn Technologies developed a process in the 1980s to turn wood waste into a liquid fuel that can be burned like oil or natural gas. A gallon of its renewable fuel oil has about half the thermal energy of conventional heating oil.

“RFO is basically liquid trees. We take solid biomass and vaporize it through a combination of a tornado of sand and high temperature and we cool that vapor, we get 75% liquid,” said Gregory Gosselin, northeast regional sales manager for Ensyn.

The conversion cost the school about $1 million. Twist estimated that in a typical year, burning 70% renewable fuel oil will cut the steam plant’s emissions from about 3,080 metric tons of carbon dioxide to 532. Payback is estimated to be two to four years, thanks in part to incentives under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard program.

“From a sustainability perspective, it’s really a wonderful thing,” Twist said. “It’s cheap to retrofit and often cheaper than whatever fuel you’re burning.”

While invented and used in Canada, this biocrude has made little headway in the U.S. That changed about five years ago when a hospital in rural New Hampshire became Ensyn’s first customer in the Northeast. Memorial Hospital in North Conway was burning heating oil and looking to convert to solid biomass.

“We presented an option where they could meet all of their sustainability goals and save money without having to spend as much,” Gosselin said. The switch was made in the summer of 2014.

“Memorial was really the key to everything because they were the first ones and they took a big chance on us. Without an operating boiler [nearby] I’m not sure Bates would have been the first customer,” Gosselin said.

The biocrude contains about one-half the BTUs of conventional fuel oil, so storage is a concern. The college can store 20,000 gallons in its storage tank and takes deliveries almost daily during the coldest weeks.

The fuel is trucked in from a plant in Renfrew, Ontario, but that could change if the company succeeds in getting more customers in New York and New England.

Natural gas is a tough competitor on price, but it’s not an option in much of New England due to a lack of pipeline capacity. “The bottom line is when we present this to colleges, they have to save money,” Gosselin said. “Its sustainability benefits are a bonus.”

For Bates College, the fuel helped push it to reach carbon neutrality a year ahead of its self-imposed deadline of 2020. The college said it has reduced campus carbon emissions 95% from the base year of 2001 and will purchase carbon offsets to account for its remaining footprint.

Of 700 U.S. colleges and universities to sign a carbon neutrality pledge in 2007, Bates said it is the seventh to have reached that goal.

The school’s buy-in on biocrude is significant for Ensyn’s prospects in the region. With the wood industry struggling in Maine and biomass plants barely operating in New Hampshire as they try to compete with cheap natural gas, a local infrastructure for production and delivery of wood waste already exists. Ensyn could be a consumer of wood waste in either New England or northern New York, Gosselin said.

“Our goal is to create a critical mass so we can build a plant in the region. Logistics costs are pretty high and if we can get a local plant then we’ll cut our logistics costs.”

Gosselin said Ensyn has about 10 prospects in New York and New England, so if all sign on, the company would likely be able to build a plant using locally sourced wood.

He said the plant would need to produce from 10 million to 20 million gallons per year — large enough to cost-effectively produce fuel, but not too large to stretch the wood basket, or the amount of raw material a region could reasonably produce without stretching the supply chain.

A 20-million-gallon plant would require about 400 dry tons of material a day.

Correction: A 20-million-gallon plant would require about 400 dry tons of material a day. A previous version of this article misstated the figure.

Bill Opalka

Bill is a freelance journalist based outside Albany, New York. As a former New England correspondent for RTO Insider, he has written about energy for newspapers, magazines and other publications for more than 20 years. He has an extensive career in trade publications and newspapers, mostly focused on the utility sector, covering such issues as restructuring, renewable energy and consumer affairs. Bill covers Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire and also compiles the Northeast Energy News daily email digest.