Fueling Dartmouth: A look at the College’s energy goals

by Cristian Cano | 10/26/18 2:50am

by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth

Think about the role that energy consumption plays in your life. You might think about charging your electronics, the gas that goes into your car’s fuel tank or even your monthly power bill. Chances are, though, that you don’t often think about energy consumption, at least not actively.

Now imagine a world without working computers or cell phones. No air conditioning or heating. No cars or planes. Thinking a little bit differently now?

This is the explanation that Rosi Kerr ’97, Dartmouth’s director of sustainability, gave for why the Dartmouth community should more intentionally consider its use of energy and how Dartmouth’s energy system can be improved.

As an undergraduate here at Dartmouth, Kerr didn’t often think about her energy consumption. Sure, she was aware of the steam radiators in dorm rooms, but she never stopped to consider where all that steam was coming from. She believed that, like her, many Dartmouth students today are so focused on and committed to their different endeavors on campus that they don’t always realize how intricate the energy system really is.

“I think most students would be like, ‘Energy isn’t a big thing for me. I don’t really think about energy,’” Kerr said. “But if I was like, ‘Okay great, let’s live without it for 24 hours,’ they would [say that they] absolutely can’t do that.”

Kerr pointed to communities that have been hit by hurricanes, such as Florida and Puerto Rico, that lose power for weeks and months as examples of how energy problems are very real. Her word of choice to describe an ideal energy system is “resilient” — that is, an energy system that can adapt both to changes in the environment, such as fuel supplies and natural disasters, and technological advancements.

In her role at the Sustainability Office, Kerr works with a variety of Dartmouth community members to make the College a more sustainable, environmentally-responsible place. In a given day, she might speak with the Facilities Operation and Management team to address concerns, meet with student groups and her office’s student interns to assist with gathering and sharing data, speak in the classroom about topics ranging from engineering to environmental studies to architecture or work with other professors on grant proposals for off-campus research.

Kerr describes her position as having “one foot on each iceberg” of what Dartmouth does.

“Our focus in the Sustainability Office is at that intersection,” Kerr said. “How do we support a transition from what we do now to more sustainable operations, and how do we do that in a way that supports the teaching and research mission of the College?”

One example of Kerr’s work with both students and the greater Dartmouth community is the Sustainability Task Force, which she co-chaired alongside environmental studies professor Andrew Friedland. The task force, which met monthly between Earth Day 2016 and Earth Day 2017, consisted of undergraduates, graduate students, professors and directors. After one year, the task force released the report “Our Green Future: The Sustainability Road Map for Dartmouth,” which detailed many of the College’s environmental goals for the future.

Friedland explained how members of the task force were chosen.

“Rosi Kerr and I, the two co-chairs of the task force, put together a list of recommended names which we sent to the President’s Office, since the president is the one who created this task force,” Friedland said. “If I remember correctly, the president accepted most of our recommendations and perhaps had a few people that he wanted to add to the list.”

He said that they tried to represent as wide a cross-section of the Dartmouth community as possible, prioritizing having each of the College’s schools represented by either a student or professor and representing the diversity of the student body. He admitted that, despite these goals, representing every community on campus proved difficult, and there were many student communities unrepresented in the task force composition.

In order to understand the proposals set forth by the task force, it is first necessary to understand how Dartmouth’s energy system works. Friedland offered a brief explanation.

“To do an energy 101 on this campus: the Dartmouth campus is powered by oil, which comes into the Dartmouth power plant, and electricity, which comes in from multiple locations around the campus and from the grid,” Friedland said. “In addition, the oil … is used to make steam, which makes hot water and either heats buildings or water, and also does a little bit of air condition[ing] … Dartmouth also generates some of its own electricity. The power plant behind [New Hampshire Hall] takes 3.5 million gallons of oil per year, burns it, and from the energy released, heats water, heats buildings and generates electricity.”

Dartmouth’s power plant burns No. 6 fuel, which Friedland said is the residue left behind after distilling petroleum from the ground. No. 6 fuel contains more impurities than many other fuel types — in Kerr’s words, Dartmouth is “still burning a 1920s fuel in 2018” — and Friedland listed some of the alternative energy sources that Dartmouth is considering. He said that propane gas is a little cleaner than No. 6 fuel, though it is still a fossil fuel and carries the risk of leakage; burning locally-sourced woodchips is also an option.

He added that one common question is: why not simply invest in a lot of wind and solar energy? It is a possibility, but because Dartmouth would need to implement such a large system to make up for the 3.5 million gallons of oil that it is currently burning yearly, looking into other options in addition to wind and solar energy is important.

The energy goals set forth in the task force’s report include: a 20 percent more efficient energy distribution system by 2030, a 50 percent renewable energy supply by 2025, a 100 percent renewable energy supply by 2050 and a 50 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2025 (using a 2010 baseline). In addition to energy goals, the report also listed goals in other areas such as waste production and food consumption.

Abbe Bjorklund, director of engineering and utilities, spoke to how much progress the College has already made and continues to make.

“We’ve actually had a pretty active energy efficiency program for about 10 years now on campus, and over that time we were successful in cutting our campus energy usage by about 25 percent,” Bjorklund said. “Now we are launching what we’re calling Energy 2.0 — our next stage of energy efficiency initiatives.”

The first major project of Energy 2.0 was completed this past summer in Steele Hall, which houses the Department of Chemistry. The building’s air handling system on the roof was updated with new, more energy-efficient equipment. Bjorklund says that science buildings use the most energy on campus, and one reason for that is because of the need for air in laboratories to be replaced, since leaving it could allow for the buildup of toxic fumes. Thanks to two new heat pumps and other improvements, the amount of heat lost in the air replacement system has been lowered and the steam use in Steele is predicted to be reduced by 70 percent.

Similar projects are planned for other buildings in the near future, and other plans include LED lighting retrofits and continued work on a new hot water distribution system. In the next five years or so, changing the lights in most buildings to LEDs is predicted to reduce electricity use by 25 percent. The hot water distribution system, on the other hand, has already been in the works for the past six months and will eventually replace the steam distribution system currently in place, reducing the amount of energy used by the College’s heating system by 20 percent.

Bjorklund said that one of the biggest challenges that she and her team face is securing funding for these projects.

“For a lot of our energy efficiency projects, we’ve been pretty successful in getting support from the administration and the Board of Trustees to fund them, but as we try to do bigger and bigger initiatives, there’s more competition for funding,” Bjorklund said.

Another challenge that Dartmouth faces is the rate at which these changes get carried out. Friedland expressed his disappointment that several of the goals in the task force’s report won’t be completed for many years. However, he also acknowledged that these changes would take time even if finances weren’t an obstacle, and the campus would probably look more like a construction site than a college if too much was attempted at once.

Kerr said that even if these goals seem far away to a student, the teams that work to reach these goals are making progress every day. She also emphasized the importance of not over-investing in any one energy source. Dartmouth has been using No. 6 fuel for about a century, and Kerr believes that the College needs to be careful not to commit to another fuel source for another century. Instead, she said, the College should leave room to adapt and utilize future technological progress that can’t even be imagined yet.

“Those 2025 goals feel really far away to [students], but they don’t feel far away to the people who work here,” Kerr said. “They feel really urgent. There’s an enormous amount of work that’s going to happen between here and there so that we meet that goal.”

Gabe Lewis, who was one of two graduate student members on the task force, offered a more skeptical perspective about Dartmouth’s energy consumption.

While on the task force, Lewis was surprised by how poorly Dartmouth compared to other Ivy League schools — as well as Middlebury College and Stanford University, which he described as the “leaders of green campuses.”

“Being on the task force, the numbers that we saw were pretty amazing in terms of how much energy different buildings use and how many pounds of trash we throw out and how many pounds of unused food go to waste,” Lewis said. “Dartmouth has a lot of potential, [but] I’ve heard that we’re the least sustainable Ivy League school.”

Lewis believes that places like Dartmouth are small enough to carry out major changes and large enough to make an impact on the greater community. He spoke positively of student groups like Divest Dartmouth that work to lessen the environmental impact that we, as a College, make.

At the same time, however, he was uncertain how much change student groups alone could make without the support of administration and the Board of Trustees.

“I think the Dartmouth student body really wants to make changes that will never happen unless the administration listens and acknowledges what the student body is saying,” Lewis said. “I think so much of our 3 billion dollar endowment is wrapped up in oil and gas, and unless that changes … it’s really difficult to do anything.”

The exact impact of Dartmouth’s investments on its energy consumption goals is unclear, but one thing is certain: its progress toward those goals continues constantly, with tangible results already apparent.

When asked how current students can best contribute to these goals, each source offered a different piece of advice.

Lewis believes that students can make the largest impact by exercising their political power and voting in local elections.

“The biggest number one thing you can do for global climate change is to vote for representatives that believe in science and believe in making a better impact on the world,” Lewis said. “As Dartmouth students, day-of we can walk to the high school and vote. Or, a lot of students here are still registered in their home states, and they can vote. It would be lovely to see [a higher] percentage of Dartmouth students eligible to vote walk five minutes to the high school and fill out a ballot.”

Friedland believes that students don’t need to choose between decreasing their everyday footprint and joining student groups related to the environment. They can do both, and in either case, focusing on smaller, yearly goals on the path toward long-term goals is crucial.

“I’m a big fan of saying, ‘Whatever we’re doing this year, let’s do X percent less next year,’” Friedland said. “Maybe only five percent, or two percent, but let’s just draw a line in the sand and say that Dartmouth, as an institution, is not going to contribute as much carbon dioxide next year as it did this year.”

Bjorklund noted that one of the goals set forth in the task force’s report was utilizing campus as a “living lab” for students to learn about and get involved in the energy sector, and she encouraged students to be on the lookout for experiential learning opportunities.

“One of the goals [in the report] was to provide experiential learning opportunities for students,” Bjorklund said. “We’re also trying to design those systems with as much flexibility as possible for experiential learning opportunities in the energy field.”

Kerr believes that there is an incredible amount of opportunity in addressing these problems, and she used herself as an example of how people can even make a living and support their families by working to preserve the planet. Whether a student is interested in finance, government or engineering, there are ways to participate in the energy sector — a pursuit that she finds worthwhile.

“There’s a huge amount of opportunity in our transition and in our collective resolution to deal with and tackle climate change, [and] I personally can find a job doing that.” Kerr said. “I like hanging my body weight on a lever that I think is really going to move the world. Even though Dartmouth is one tiny corner of the world, for me, that’s how you do it.”