It ain't easy being green

The story of Evergreen's foray into biomass gasification

By Brett Cihon on April 14, 2011

Going green is good. Compostable chip bags, solar powered buses, wind powered electricity plants. Most everyone will agree we should save our mother Gaia's resources and cut back on our carbon footprint.

But going green isn't always easy. It can be a complicated, messy process. And as many from The Evergreen State College recently found out during a foray into biomass gasification, sometimes the best intentions for going green don't always work out as planned.

Evergreen strives to be on the progressive side of climate issues. In the fall of 2009, faculty, staff and students put together one of the first campus climate action plans in the country. The action plan outlined ways the college adversely effected the environment, and what steps could be taken to curb these effects. It was immediately clear that the campus' use of natural gas for heat was a big contributor to Evergreen's overall carbon footprint. 

"Our heat comes from natural gas," says Todd Sprague, a member of the Evergreen Sustainability Council. "That was the largest remaining piece of our carbon footprint."

Since Evergreen couldn't turn off the heat completely (lest the students freeze in the winter), a substitute for natural gas was sought. It was eventually concluded that an energy source called biomass gasification came closest to meeting Evergreen's goals for sustainability. "Biomass had some promise," says Sprague.

Biomass gasification is a process that heats wood just enough to create a combustible gas. The gas is then used as fuel to create useable energy.  It's a fairly simple process that - according to Sprague - has some potential as a greenhouse-gas-reduction strategy when done right. 

The problem is that biomass plants aren't always done right.

Around the time Evergreen was planning to further investigate biomass gasification, a biomass incinerator plant was proposed outside of Shelton. This plant was intended as large-scale power producer that, all said and done, would damage the environment.

Concerned citizens, environmental activists and scientists from the area also presented problems that an Evergreen biomass gasification system might hold. Could it really be carbon neutral, or would it actually double the amount of Evergreen's CO2 emissions? Could collecting biomass be environmentally feasible, or would it do harm?

Sprague says that because the proposed Shelton plants were so close to Evergreen, many of the concerned citizens saw a potential biomass gasification project as one in the same as the Shelton biomass incinerator.

"Immediately we started to hear that all biomass was bad and that it was not worth looking into biomass at all," says Sprague.

In December 2009, the Thurston County Board of Commissioners decided to enact a one-year moratorium on new biomass facilities in the area. A moratorium that Sprague says was spurred by groups opposing a potential biomass gasification facility at Evergreen. Once the moratorium was confirmed, a $3.7 million grant awarded to Evergreen by the state Department of Commerce was given back to the state by school officials, making any sort of biomass gasification project economically infeasible.

With the money not there, Evergreen stopped moving forward toward biomass gasification, effectively killing any future project before a complete feasibility study could be finished.

Sprague says the Sustainability Council still plans to finish the feasibility study. He is excited to share the findings with the community. But no matter what the outcome of the study, biomass gasification won't head to Evergreen any time soon. For now, natural gas will have to stay in place.

"We still have to find some new way to reduce our carbon (footprint) related to campus heating," says Sprague. "That's a conversation that still needs to happen."