Henrich, Kufferman, Roland: The Dartmouth Energy Bubble: Rising Energy Prices in the Fight to Stay Warm this Winter

As energy prices skyrocket throughout the Upper Valley, Dartmouth graduate students struggle to stay warm.

by Emily Henrich, Lena Kufferman and Gwendolyn Roland | 1/13/23 4:00am

“At the end of the month, sometimes I’ll take the bus to work if I know I can’t afford a tank of gas,” says Rendi Rogers, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in microbiology and a lead organizer for Graduate Organized Laborers at Dartmouth, the graduate student union. Although we attend an institution with one of the largest endowments in the country, rising energy costs have made it next to impossible for our graduate students to survive in the expensive Upper Valley. 

Rogers is not alone in her struggle to make ends meet. On Wednesday, Oct. 26, the Graduate Student Life Committee put on an event providing free LED light bulbs and window films to increase energy efficiency in homes. Despite rainy weather and a limited turnout, the resources were quickly divided among students concerned about rapidly rising energy prices as winter approached. There, as undergraduate researchers working with Dr. Maron Greenleaf and Dr. Sarah Kelly in the Dartmouth Energy Justice Clinic, we spoke with a few students about their individual energy struggles. One student said her house is so poorly insulated that condensation forms icicles in her microwave. Another graduate student said he is struggling to keep up with how quickly his electrical system burns through lightbulbs. He said he unscrews his singular lightbulb from the living room to do his homework in the garage at night, returning it when he is done. 

These students are suffering from energy burdens, which exist when households spend 6% or more of their income on energy costs. Energy costs encompass not only electrical and heating bills, but also gas used for transportation. According to an ongoing survey that the Energy Justice Clinic is conducting with graduate students, 70.8% of respondents believe that they are experiencing a high energy burden, while 33.3% spend more than $175 on transportation costs each month. For reference, the Geisel School of Medicine PhD student stipend for 2022-2023 is $35,196 annually. These costs are compounded by the local housing crisis, which imposes high rent costs on Upper Valley residents. In order to afford housing, Rogers said graduate students moving into the area more recently “have had to accept apartments up to an hour [drive] away”  — increasing transportation costs, in terms of both money and time, and thus their energy burdens. 

In order to provide recourse for these energy injustices and other hardships, Dartmouth graduate students are working to unionize. On Tuesday, Oct. 11, GOLD hosted a campus university-wide walkout, demanding  livable stipends from the College. Now, the union is collecting pledge cards and seeking official recognition from Dartmouth’s administration. 

According to Dartmouth’s Office of Residential Life, 88-90% of all undergraduate students live on campus in dorms and houses that the College is responsible for maintaining. For this reason, fewer undergraduate students have had to confront the rapidly increasing cost of energy. Those that do likely also face high energy burdens, depending largely on their level of parental support. However, Dartmouth has started to incentivize undergraduates to move off-campus. In 2021, the Office of Residential Life offered students a chance to participate in a one-time lottery to win $5,000 if they removed themselves from the housing waitlist. This creates a community of undergraduates who are experiencing the same rise in energy prices and subsequent massive utilities bills as the graduate student community but with even less income to support themselves. Additionally, this push for undergraduates to live off-campus further exacerbates the housing crisis for graduate students, forcing them to move farther out into rural areas with less access to public transportation. While Rogers may take the bus to work at the end of a month, many of her friends who live upwards of an hour away from campus do not have that option. 

Graduate students and residents of the Upper Valley alike are not only vulnerable to energy burdens from increased transportation costs; they also must face some of the highest electrical prices in the country. In October 2022, the average New Hampshire residential electricity rate was 21.88 cents per kilowatt hour, 41% higher than the national average. Further, for the average New Hampshire resident, energy costs are 9.4% of their income. Energy burdens are particularly severe in rural areas of the Upper Valley, where many residents cannot access public transportation or energy services. Like our graduate students, Upper Valley residents face frigid winters and a growing energy crisis with insufficient resources to cover demands.

Many applicants choose Dartmouth because of its balance of undergraduate focus and strong research opportunities. But this very balance that serves our undergraduate population sidelines our graduate students. This balance is celebrated, but it is also precarious. It relies socially, economically and geographically on the graduate population. Most Dartmouth affiliated persons are familiar with the concept of the “Dartmouth Bubble.” This idealized boundary shields undergraduates from the reality of the severity of energy insecurity in the Upper Valley region. While an increasing number of graduate students live beyond the reaches of the “Dartmouth Bubble,” it is their hard work that preserves the romanticized reality that exists within it. As the harsh Hanover winter sets in and temperatures dip below freezing, living conditions outside of this bubble of safety become more dire. The stakes are rising — not only for the graduate student population, but also for the Dartmouth community as a whole. 

Gwendolyn Roland and Lena Kufferman are members of the Class of 2025, and Emily Henrich is a member of the Class of 2022. Roland, Kufferman and Henrich are also members of the Dartmouth Energy Justice Clinic. Additional members and mentors of the Energy Justice Clinic contributed to the research and writing of this article.

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