Spencer: The Big Green isn’t so green


Dartmouth’s lack of progress on fossil fuel emissions is concerning both for its reputation as an academic institution and for the future of the planet.

by Kyle Spencer | 52 minutes ago


Noticing the swollen chimney that dominates the southern part of the campus and the oil trucks that regularly make deliveries there, I decided to do some research. I discovered that the Dartmouth Heating Plant, which has provided heat to the campus since 1903, uses 3.5 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil each year to heat the campus.

No. 6 fuel oil is considered one of the dirtiest fuels and is still only used because of its energy density and low cost. As a result, Dartmouth emits 65,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, making it the largest polluter per student in the Ivy League as of 2013, at over 10 metric tons per student.

The carbon dioxide that warms the earth is not the only product of the plant; the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services considers Dartmouth a major source of nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and other greenhouse gas emissions. This is completely out of step with Dartmouth’s values, and I think Dartmouth lacks the foresight and urgency to deal with this crisis.

I spoke with Dartmouth alumnus William Schlesinger ’72, a distinguished biogeochemist who previously worked as dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Schlesinger was one of the authors of a public letter opposite a wood-fired biomass plant originally planned to replace the existing fossil fuel plant in Dartmouth. Burning wood would have actually increased Dartmouth’s carbon dioxide emissions, so plans for the biomass plant were scrapped in December 2020. Schlesinger said he believed Dartmouth had not taken the its lasting imprint seriously.

“I think what Dartmouth needs to do is … realize there’s not going to be a cheap solution to this,” he said. “If they want to take the carbon out of their emissions, they’ll need solar power and a big battery system to back it up and/or a pumped hydro system. It won’t be a small project, it will cost the equivalent of a new science building or a few new dorms on campus.

When asked how he would handle Dartmouth’s sustainability going forward, Schlesinger said he would “charge the Thayer School [of Engineering] and Irving Institute [for Energy and Society] to explore all available renewable energy sources. There is no better institution in the country to come up with a better plan than Thayer and Irving working together…When their report comes out, there should be money to get to work. We really need to be carbon neutral by 2030.”

John Sterman ’77, professor of management at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recognized the need for all institutions to find solutions that align with national and global climate goals. Sterman, who also opposed the wood-biomass plant, emphasized an “integrated design process”, in which the campus is modernized to create a unified energy ecosystem, rather than making decisions “one by one”.

This approach aligns with what Dartmouth is currently doing: making the campus more energy efficient through building renovations and changing the piping system from steam to hot water. The piping project will cost between $200 million and $400 million, take 10 years to complete, and make the campus 23% more energy efficient, according to sustainability director Rosi Kerr. Increased energy efficiency will result in an overall decrease in energy demand for any renewable energy system replacing the power plant, allowing for an easier and more affordable transition.

These energy-efficient measures require transient space for residents, research space, and classrooms. Dartmouth is experiencing an undergraduate housing crisis so this swing space is not found. Dartmouth Hall’s renovation took two years and is still ongoing, and the hot water system is unlikely to be completed until 2030.

Sterman also pointed out that energy transitions have many ancillary benefits. For example, energy efficient buildings are more comfortable and quieter due to better insulation and better windows. In addition, these projects create jobs and improve the health of people working in the buildings. Rather than being presented as a cost, Sterman emphasized that the College should view these changes as an “investment” that hedges against fossil fuel price volatility, improves the school’s reputation, pays for itself by significantly reducing energy and heating costs and, above all, is aligned with the health and well-being of the planet.

Earth Day 2017, Dartmouth engaged to a wide range of sustainability goals. This included a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2050 and to have Dartmouth powered by 50% renewable energy. ‘by 2025 and 100% by 2050. It depended on the now abandoned idea of ​​building a biomass plant. Since then, Dartmouth has looked into various renewable energy sources, but has remained silent on the technologies and strategies it is pursuing. Dartmouth should consider air-source and geothermal heat pumps that can run on clean electricity, as they now operate in sub-zero climates. There is also plenty of fallow farmland in New Hampshire and Vermont suitable for large-scale solar farms. Additionally, most of the East Coast states are installing offshore wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean for their electricity needs. Power from offshore turbines could be fed into the grid at the Seabrook nuclear power plant on the New Hampshire coast. New Hampshire has favorable topography to build pumped hydroelectric storage facilities to store this solar and wind energy.

During Earth Day this year, Dartmouth updated the campus on its sustainability initiatives. At the time of these announcements, I sincerely hoped that the College would chart a clear path to deep emission reductions. In the end, College President Phil Hanlon sent an email to the student body announcing – without any supporting data – that Dartmouth’s greenhouse gas emissions had been reduced by 30% per year. compared to 2010 baselines, which meant we were closer to the 2025 target of 50% emissions reductions. A 30% efficiency in 12 years is remarkable, but will it be possible for Dartmouth to reduce its emissions by another 20% in three years? I’m not so sure.

In a significant step forward, the Dartmouth Board agreed in March 2021 to an Infrastructure Renewal Fund. Normally, 5% of the endowment is used to fund the operating budget, and under this new policy, this percentage would increase. The IRF would use a percentage of this boosted operating budget to provide funds for new residential buildings and to make the buildings more sustainable and energy efficient.

However, it felt like we had taken two steps back at the Earth Day conference when the panel of College trustees talked about the annual capital expenditures required to maintain Dartmouth’s position as an institution. world-class education: investing in cutting-edge research, hiring brilliant professors and constructing new buildings, in addition to the energy transition. Regarding the sustainable transition, the panelists said: “We don’t have enough money to do everything we need in all these dimensions”.

Additionally, panelists mentioned many energy transition challenges at Dartmouth, including that more than 60% of buildings on campus would need to be fully retrofitted to meet sustainability standards, and more than 90% would need work. Given the speed of the construction project at Dartmouth Hall, it is unclear whether this can be done in a timely manner. There was also little discussion of specific plans to achieve the stated goals. Dartmouth currently has a target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. While there was talk of increasing efficiency, there was no mention of any concrete plans or timetable for the transition to renewable energies – the most crucial aspect to achieve this reduction target. Five years after Dartmouth set its sustainability goals, it feels like no work has been done. There are plans for a strategic review of Dartmouth’s Sustainable Development Goals with updated recommendations in the fall of 2022. I really hope these are more specific than the Earth Day conference and reflect the urgency of the situation.

Dartmouth is largely defined by its external environment. Being surrounded by forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains fosters much of the experience of living and studying here. Rather than being left behind, Dartmouth must fully embrace its motto, Vox clamantis in the desert — “a solitary voice crying out in the desert”. The Bible verse refers to the call to speak the truth even if you are not heard. We must be the only voice crying out in the desert for change, to protect the nature that defines our very being.

Kyle Spencer is a member of the Class of 2023 and editor for The Climate Capitalist, a newsletter aimed at helping businesses, investors and consumers invest in the transition to a clean energy global economy.

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