Spencer: The Big Green is not so Green

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

by Kyle Spencer | 4/28/22 4:00am

Noticing the billowing smokestack towering over the southern part of campus and the oil trucks that regularly make deliveries there, I decided to do some research. I discovered that Dartmouth’s heating plant, which has been supplying heat to campus since 1903, uses 3.5 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil each year to heat campus.

No. 6 fuel oil is considered one of the dirtiest fuels and is only still in use due to 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, with over 10  metric tons per student. 

Earth-warming carbon dioxide is not the only product from 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 sync with Dartmouth’s values, and I feel that Dartmouth lacks the foresight and urgency necessary to tackle this crisis.

I spoke with Dartmouth alumnus William Schlesinger ’72, a distinguished biogeochemist who previously worked as the dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Schlesinger was one of the authors of a public letter opposing a wood-burning biomass plant originally planned to replace the existing fossil fuel plant at 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 believes Dartmouth has not taken its sustainable footprint seriously

“I think what Dartmouth needs to do is … realize there is not going to be a cheap fix to this,” he said. “If they want to get carbon off their emissions, it’s going to require solar and a big battery system to back it up and/or a pumped-hydro system. This is not going to be a small project, it’s going to cost the equivalent of a new science building or a few new dormitories on campus.”

When asked how he would manage Dartmouth’s sustainability going forward, Schlesinger said that he “would charge the Thayer School [of Engineering] and Irving Institute [for Energy and Society] to explore all renewable energy sources available. There is not a better institution in the nation to come up with a better plan than Thayer and Irving working together … When their report comes to the table, there ought to be money to get to work. We really must be carbon-neutral by 2030.” 

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

This approach aligns with what Dartmouth is doing currently —making campus more energy efficient through building retrofits and changing the piping network from steam to hot water. The piping project will cost $200 to$400 million, take 10 years to complete and make campus 23% more energy efficient, according to the director of sustainability Rosi Kerr. Increased energy efficiency will mean an overall decreased energy demand for whatever renewable energy system replaces the power plant, allowing for an easier and more affordable transition.

These energy-efficient measures require swing space for residents, research space and classrooms. Dartmouth is experiencing an undergraduate housing crisis so this swing space is nowhere to be found. The retrofitting of Dartmouth Hall has taken two years and is still ongoing, and the hot water system likely will not be completed until 2030.

Sterman also stressed that energy transitions have many ancillary benefits. For example, energy-efficient buildings are more comfortable and quieter due to increased insulation and better windows. Additionally, these projects create jobs and lead to the better health of those working in the buildings. Rather than being framed as a cost, Sterman stressed that the College should view these changes as an “investment” that protects the itself from volatile fossil fuel prices, enhances the reputation of the school, pays for itself in significantly reduced energy and heating costs and, above all, is aligned with the health and well-being of the planet.

On Earth Day in 2017, Dartmouth committed to a wide-ranging set of sustainability goals. This included a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2050 and having Dartmouth be supplied with 50% renewable energy by 2025 and 100% by 2050. This was contingent on the now-scrapped idea of building a biomass plant. Dartmouth has since looked into various renewable energy sources but has been radio silent on the actual technologies and strategies it is pursuing. Dartmouth should consider air-source and geothermal heat pumps that can run on clean electricity as they now work in sub-zero climates. There is also plenty of fallow farmland in New Hampshire and Vermont suitable for large-scale solar farms. Additionally, most East Coast states are installing offshore wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean for their power needs. Power from offshore turbines could be fed into the grid at the Seabrook nuclear power plant on the New Hampshire coastline. New Hampshire has favorable topography to build pumped hydroelectric storage facilities to store this solar and wind power.

During Earth Day this year, Dartmouth updated campus on its sustainability initiatives. It was my sincere hope going into these announcements that the College would lay out a specific path to sharp emissions reductions. Ultimately, College president Phil Hanlon emailed the student body, announcing — without any supporting data — that Dartmouth’s greenhouse gas emissions had declined 30% from the 2010 baselines, which meant we were closer to the 2025 goal of 50% emissions reduction. 30% efficiency in 12 years is noteworthy, but will it be possible for Dartmouth to reduce emissions by another 20% in three years? I am not so sure. 

In a significant step forward, Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees agreed in March 2021 on 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 bolstered operating budget to provide funds for new residential buildings and to make buildings more sustainable and energy-efficient.

However, it felt like we took two steps backward at the Earth Day conference when the panel of College administrators  spoke about the annual capital expenditures necessary to maintain Dartmouth’s standing as a world-class educational institution: investing in cutting-edge research, hiring brilliant professors and constructing new buildings, in addition to the energy transition. Concerning the sustainable transition, the panelists said, “We don’t have enough money to do everything we need to across all these dimensions.”

Additionally, the panelists mentioned many of the challenges of the energy transition at Dartmouth, including that over 60% of the buildings on campus would have to be totally renovated to meet sustainability standards, and over 90% would need some work done. Given the speed of the construction project at Dartmouth Hall, it is unclear if this can be done in a timely manner. There was also little discussion about specific plans to meet stated goals. Dartmouth currently has a goal of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. While there was talk of increasing efficiency, there was no mention of any concrete plans or a timeline for the transition to renewable energy — the most crucial aspect for reaching that reduction objective. 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 sustainability goals with updated recommendations in the fall of 2022. I truly hope these are more specific than the Earth Day conference and reflect the situation’s urgency.

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 a laggard, Dartmouth must fully embrace its motto, Vox clamantis in deserto — “a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.” The biblical verse refers to the call to speak the truth even if you are not being heard. We must be the lone voice crying out in the wilderness for change, to protect the nature that defines our very being. 

Kyle Spencer is a member of the Class of 2023 and a staff writer at The Climate Capitalist, a newsletter focused on helping companies, investors and consumers invest in the transition to a clean energy global economy. 

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