How Middlebury College Achieved Carbon Neutrality

Middlebury College

Date Posted: May 22, 2017
Submitted by: Jack Byrne
Content Type: Case Studies
Office or Department: Sustainability Office

Project Overview

This past winter, Middlebury College achieved an ambitious goal of carbon neutrality that had been officially set in 2007. When it became clear that the College’s initial of goal recommended by faculty, staff, students and the administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 was achievable, the students then pressed on for carbon neutrality. The goal grew out of Middlebury's commitment to the climate, local economy and education. Through innovative and creative problem-solving Middlebury worked with stakeholders on and off campus to increase efficiencies, support local businesses and reach the goal of net-zero carbon emissions in 2016.


Middlebury began reducing its carbon footprint as early as 2001. The first major step was a resolution in 2004 to lower all carbon emissions to 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. This goal, adopted by the trustees, was based on a major report produced by a January Term class for the Environmental Council. When the 2012 goal was within reach because of a commitment to switch to biomass as a primary fuel source, the board subsequently approved a student-driven proposal to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2016.

Among many other climate action projects on campus, Middlebury completed construction of the biomass gasification plant in late 2008. The biomass plant, which burns locally-sourced wood chips, meets most of the heating and cooling needs on campus and co-generates 15 to 20% of our electricity all while remaining carbon neutral. Switching from fuel oil to biomass cut Middlebury's carbon footprint by 40 to 50% and saves between $1 and $2 million annually in fuel costs.

In 2014 the Trustees approved a plan to conserve 2,100 acres of Middlebury’s Bread Loaf forest lands in perpetuity. The easement given to the Vermont Land Trust to keep the lands in forest in perpetuity included a provision allowing the College to quantify the carbon sequestration on those lands and to apply for credits that it could use to achieve neutrality. Blue Source, a carbon accounting company, has quantified carbon credits based on the amount of carbon being sequestered by the Bread Loaf forests and is preparing an application for credits from the American Carbon Registry. A portion of these carbon credits will be used to offset the remaining portion of our carbon footprint after biomass and other carbon-reducing changes on campus. The remainder will be sold and proceeds will be split with the College.


The goal of this project was to achieve carbon neutrality by 2016 by means of cost neutral (or cost negative) efforts that shifted purchasing to the local economy, greater use of renewable energy sources, increased conservation and efficiency, adopting and improving new technologies and offset purchase as a last resort. It was a goal to engage the College community in the effort and to use the neutrality initiative as a way to enrich the College’s educational mission through research and learning that could be applied to achieving our goals.


The carbon neutrality project was implemented through ongoing engagement between students, faculty and staff, administration and Trustees.

Roles and responsibilities shifted from the initial goal and then the student initiated efforts to establish ambitious goals and objectives, to adoption of goals by trustees, formation of task groups to develop achieve the goal and the formation of climate action plans to the institutionalization of the goal establishing clear roles and responsibilities by administrators to assure it was met.

Over the nine year effort numerous studies and research projects were carried out by students and classes to assess the feasibility of promising prospects. A carbon neutrality team at the College solicited and vetted proposals from various entrepreneurs and established companies that could help with the neutrality goal, and an annual greenhouse inventory and progress report was presented to the Trustees and the College community to gauge progress and rethink the strategy for achieving neutrality.

The project had strong support from the College leadership team and the Trustees, who played an active role in annually reviewing progress and providing constructive criticism and strategic direction as things evolved.



The College's Environmental Peak Report recommends adopting a carbon neutral goal.

A student conducts the College's first emissions inventory as an internship and senior thesis in collaboration with Clean Air-Cool Planet.


The Environmental Council (EC) proposes the Carbon Reduction Initiative (CRI).

EC forms a subcommittee, the CRI Working Group, to explore carbon neutrality.


Winter term course maps out possible strategies for becoming carbon neutral in a report titled "Carbon Neutrality at Middlebury College."

CRI working group recommends a preliminary goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.


Board of Trustees endorses initial carbon reduction goal proposed by CRI Working Group


Winter term course holds climate change conference at Middlebury.

The student environmental activists group, the Sunday Night Group, forms with a focus on climate change.


Board of Trustees approves proposal for biomass plant.

Students propose new goal of carbon neutrality by fall 2016.

Sustainability Office develops a standardized annual greenhouse gas inventory and reporting system with assistance from students.


Trustees adopt resolution for College to become carbon neutral by 2016.

President Liebowitz signs American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (now known as the Carbon Commitment).

Construction begins on biomass gasification plant.


Biomass gasification plant completed; test burning begins.


Carbon neutrality plan adopted by president's staff council.

Biomass plant begins full operation.


Middlebury establishes agreement with Integrated Energy Systems to explore use of biomethane on campus.


First test of willows in biomass plant completed to determine the fuel source's feasibility.


143 kW AllEarth Renewables solar farm power purchase created on Route 125


Facilities creates the position of Energy and Technology Manager to assist with carbon neutrality efforts.

Biomass facility has most successful year to date, helping to cut College carbon emissions by 60 percent in fiscal year 2013.


500kW solar array power purchase created on South Ridge, bringing Middlebury College's solar power to 5 percent of total energy sources.

2,100 acres of forested land at Bread Loaf permanently conserved through easement.


Middlebury College begins process of quantifying carbon credits on Bread Loaf lands.

500kW Wilber Solar power purchase created, bringing solar power to 8 percent of total energy.

Carbon neutrality is achieved.


The biomass project was a $12 million investment which was financed through a bond the College issued through an investment company. The bond payments are supported by the fuel cost savings the College has realized from its switch from using fuel oil to using woodchips. Annual cost savings range from $1 to 2 million per year.

The three solar projects the College partnered with are net revenue projects for the College. Each project is different in its finance structure but in each case the College receives a certain percentage of the net profits from the power generation plus it owns all of the renewable energy credits for each project. These credits can be monetized and sold but the College has chosen to permanently retire them.

Over the last 14 years, Middlebury completed 87 projects with Efficiency Vermont, a statewide conservation utility, investing roughly $1.5 million. As a result, Middlebury now saves $636,000—and 4.52 million kilowatt hours—annually. The funding for the projects came out of the College’s repair and maintenance budget. In addition, Efficiency Vermont provided financial incentives for completing the projects worth approximately $700,000.

The carbon sequestration credit project involving permanent conservation of 2100 acres of the College’s Bread Loaf lands is being financed by sale of carbon credits through the American Carbon Registry which will result in a net profit to the College after it buys back the number of credits needed to maintain carbon neutrality. The conservation of the Bread Loaf lands was supported by a gift from a former Middlebury College trustee.


The overall result of carbon neutrality is made up of smaller efforts, including the biomass plant, conservation of 2,100 acres of College-owned land, the creation of several solar partnerships and multiple efficiency projects.

The entire process also opened the door for increased dialogue on campus surrounding the issue of climate change and carbon neutrality.

Lessons Learned

Throughout this process, several themes have emerged that helped us to achieve our goal.

We learned that building strong and broad networks is crucial for such a large project. We worked closely with stakeholders on and off campus who all helped us meet our goal. The project maintained strong student engagement, and it was key to continually provide opportunities for students to stay involved and to influence decision-making throughout the process.

Flexibility proved itself to be a very necessary aspect of achieving carbon neutrality. Many times we were forced to change course and search for alternate solutions when conditions changed or projects did not work out. For example, we did a four-year project in partnership with State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in which willows were grown as fuel for the biomass plant, but we learned through the burn testing that willows were not a suitable fuel source and had to turn to other sources. Exploring and capitalizing on locally available resources and assets allowed us to fulfill our commitment to the community and local economy.

Setting an ambitious and public target date along with our goal gave us the extra push to achieve our goal in a tight but doable time frame. The process also honed our criteria for vetting ideas and prospects for energy conservation and carbon reduction initiatives which include:

• What impact would a proposed project have on net carbon emissions?

• Is it technologically feasible and what are the risks and rewards? Has it been tried elsewhere?

• What are the social implications?

• Would a project have a net benefit when all is taken into account?

• Does it create new opportunities for enhancing the educational mission of the College?


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