Merkel to focus on fossil fuels, solar power

by William Schpero | 11/13/06 6:00am

Dartmouth's efforts to achieve a sustainable campus are moving beyond dining toward reducing its dependency on fossil fuels, according to sustainability coordinator Jim Merkel. Some, however, have questioned the efficacy of these future energy-focused projects.

Merkel said is moving ahead with plans for the possible construction of solar panels on top of four campus buildings, including The Hanover Inn, McKenzie Hall, the Alumni Gymnasium and the physical science complex comprised of Steele, Fairchild and Burke Halls. These solar panels would heat water in the buildings and provide self-sustaining hot water systems for bathrooms in addition to heating systems.

"I think that solar thermal has its place in the whole energy picture -- I suspect it has long longevity and low maintenance," Kenneth Packard, assistant director of engineering and utilities, said.

Yet, Packard questioned the extent to which the project would impact Dartmouth's energy use. According to Ian Stebinger '06 Th'07, an intern with the Office of Sustainability, the McKenzie Hall element of the proposal will decrease the College's oil consumption by approximately 0.0024 percent.

"On the electrical side it would have almost no impact and it would have a small percentage [impact in terms of oil]," Packard said.

Merkel clarified, however, that this solar project is really a test to see if solar energy is a reliable alternative and then, if successful, would be expanded on the campus.

"The goal is to save oil and diversify our energy portfolio, which currently consists of 100 percent fossil fuel," he said.

Merkel and Chair of the environmental studies program Andy Friedland also advocate the use of wind energy, although Merkel questioned the plausibility of its use at Dartmouth.

"We just don't have a great wind site right here," Merkel said. "Wind is very cost-effective, but the sites are mountaintops and sea shores and when you look at the map we're not near either."

Packard, in contrast, identified the Dartmouth Skiway as a good wind generation site.

When asked whether the sustainability coordinator's office had considered the Skiway, Merkel said that it had not.

"I haven't studied [wind power] in detail," Merkel said.

Other alternatives for reducing energy costs and the College's environmental impact include using wood chips, methane from the Lebanon, N.H., landfill, gas from a local treatment plant or the waste vegetable-derived fuel known as "yellow grease" to run the power plant, Packard said.

"We haven't set policy goals as far as what our energy should be," Merkel said. "That's an important next step, but right now we're just getting a handle on the data."

"The institution is routinely looking at ways to increase the energy efficiency of the power plant and the 5.5 million gallons of oil that get burned every year," said Friedland, who is also member of the sustainability coordinator adivsory committee. "Could the campus be doing more? Absolutely."

In 2004-2005, the most recent year for which data is available, Dartmouth spent $7 million on oil, an increase of $3 million from 2003-2004. In contrast, the College devotes $100,000 annually to the Sustainability Initiative, resulting in estimated savings of $250,000 each year.

"I think Dartmouth is doing a very good job, but I don't think that [the College] is as good as other institutions in promoting itself," Friedland said.

Merkel and Friedland both explained that conservation is dependent on a combination of student and administrative activism.

"I would certainly like student groups to take this upon themselves and I would hope that the faculty and the administration would help and be supportive in every way they can -- I think to a certain extent faculty and administrators are supportive," Friedland said. "There's good evidence that personal behavior can account for a 5 or 10 percent reduction in energy use."

To this end, the Office of Sustainability placed posters in 50 buildings illustrating the energy use of that specific building and its environmental and economic costs to the campus.

"That's a good step in terms of awareness," Friedland said.

Some students, though, question their ability to control heat and electricity use in their residence halls as the thermostats are often ineffective.

"The thermostat is worthless," said Tyler Luthringer '10, who lives in Bissell residence hall. "Sometimes the heat is too hot, and I have to open my window, and sometimes it is too cold."

The Office of Residential Life, which sets dormitory temperatures, was unable to comment, but Packard explained that buildings should be set at an average temperature of 68 degrees. When the average temperature goes below 68 degrees, the entire building's heat turns on even though individual rooms may be at 70 degrees or higher.

"The data that I have is that the dorms are not the biggest energy users on campus," Merkel said. "But from my perspective if we find a solution that would be great."

Merkel also stressed that making campus buildings environmentally friendly when they are built and renovated is central to sustainability at Dartmouth.

A key part of the implementation of these initiatives will be handled by an environmental conservation technician. The College's first environmental conservation technician resigned from the post within a week of being appointed, according to Merkel. Thus, the process is stalled until the position can be filled.

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