Dartmouth’s energy production: where we’ve come from and where we still need to go
Since 2017, the College has committed themselves to transitioning to a low-carbon future by making strategic investments in sustainable energy, but new science has led administrators to re-evaluate their goals and timelines.
Recent developments, such as the opening of the Irving Institute, have sparked discussions about clean renewable energy on Dartmouth’s campus. The Dartmouth Hanover Heating Plant, which has been supplying campus with energy since 1903, is the oldest continuously operating co-generational energy plant in the country. Using cogeneration — heat and energy production — the plant supplies electricity and heat by sending low-pressure steam around campus. To create this steam, the plant runs off of No. 6 fuel oil, a type of residual oil characterized by both an extremely high-energy concentration as well as an extremely high rate of pollution.
Dartmouth initially began to set greenhouse gas targets as early as 2005, according to assistant director of the Dartmouth Sustainability Office Marcus Welker. Around that time, greenhouse gas and carbon impacts became the first and most widespread environmental related goals set by colleges and universities.
“These questions of, ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘What's the alternative?’ began being raised in late 2010, early 2011, when the current iteration of the Dartmouth Sustainability Office was founded with Rosi [Kerr] as the director,” Welker said. “The cogeneration plant is the largest single generator of greenhouse gasses at Dartmouth College by far, and so has been the focus of a lot of the work that our office has done.”
Since then, the College has been working to try to reduce fossil fuel emissions, as well as create more eco-friendly forms of energy production.
According to Dartmouth News, in April 2017, College President Phil Hanlon made an Earth Day pledge to transition Dartmouth to a low-carbon future by making strategic investments in sustainable energy. The pledge included reducing greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 50% by 2025 and by 80% by 2050, transitioning the heating system from No. 6 fuel oil to renewable sources by 2025 and establishing a better system to distribute energy across campus.
In 2019, according to Dartmouth News, the College began seeking proposals to build a biomass energy heating facility and transmission system to replace the existing central heating system.
However, Dartmouth News soon wrote that the plan was abandoned in 2020, with the College announcing that the biomass plan was “not the right path forward.” Instead, the College then began prioritizing the conversion to a hot-water system, in an effort to move away from a single, central generation facility and explore options for a distributed system that uses a range of sustainable energy sources.
Welker explained that having a distributed system instead of just one central hub — which is the case of the current heating plant — would allow for more freedom in the types and amounts of energy in different buildings.
In 2022, Dartmouth News shared that the College was making strides in their plan, with their upgraded campus heating system drawing interest from other New England schools. Officials from schools like Williams College and Mount Holyoke College came to tour campus for a look at parts of the new, high-efficiency hot-water heating system, according to the College’s press release.
In terms of how Dartmouth compares to other institutions, Welker explained that a metric called “energy use intensity” — the amount of energy used to heat, cool and electrify buildings, divided by how many buildings as indicated by square footage — is used to make this assessment.
“Amongst the 30 institutions that are a part of the Ivy Plus sustainability collaborative, we are, I would say, in the 40th percentile,” said Welker. “We’re not the best, we’re not the worst. We’re pretty average amongst our peers.”
On this year’s Earth Day, April 22, Hanlon sent a campus-wide email announcing updates and progress at the five-year mark from his first Earth Day announcement.
“We have charged the Our Green Future 2.0 planning team with reviewing the institution’s current state, re-examining our 2017 goals and recommending a new set of sustainability goals for Dartmouth,” he wrote in the email.
The latest science emphasizes that the world needs to do more to avert the most serious impacts of climate change, explained Hanlon, citing that the science-based greenhouse gas emissions goals set by the College in 2017 are not enough.
“We are inspired to move more quickly and have made substantial investments in a low-carbon future,” Hanlon wrote. “In this and the next fiscal years, for example, Dartmouth has committed more than $50 million dollars to upgrading our infrastructure to enable our low-carbon energy transition, most notably by converting from steam to hot water heating and cooling.”
Assistant anthropology professor Maron Greenleaf, a co-founder of Dartmouth’s Energy Justice Clinic and a working group member for Our Green Future 2.0, also emphasized the importance of ensuring the College’s energy initiatives align with scientific advancements.
“There’s a need to update Dartmouth’s goals to be in line with both what the science says in terms of what we need to do, and also kind of think about Dartmouth’s role as a leader regionally in the Upper Valley and beyond,” Greenleaf said.
Transferring over to these low-temperature, hot-water heating systems is estimated to save the College approximately 20% of heating and cooling emissions that are associated with campus operations, Welker said.
“It’s my opinion that this direction is the right direction,” Welker said. “And that is going to mean that the central energy plant — I don’t know when, two years, five years, that’s still very much being figured out — will be decommissioned, and they’ll stop burning the oil, and then they will heat, cool and electrify the campus using other technologies.”
Welker described that the upcoming change in presidents will also play a role in the implementation of the College’s sustainability goals.
“We’ve got all this great feedback from the community, and now it’s just working with this incoming administration to launch the specific programs, projects and strategies for achieving the goals that the community has developed,” explained Welker. “By the end of this calendar year, I suspect that we will know a lot more about the future of Dartmouth’s operations and the trajectory of those.”
Greenleaf also emphasized the shift that may occur as leadership changes.
“With a new college president coming in who's going to be making decisions about what she thinks is a priority for the campus, this is a wonderful opportunity and moment for us to be bringing these sustainability goals to the table to support and encourage her to prioritize sustainability and particularly the transition from fossil fuels,” Greenleaf said. “There's a real opportunity for Dartmouth to be a leader in the way that we need to be.”
In addition, “energy retrofits” will help to reduce campus energy emissions, especially when added up cumulatively over time.
Welker explained that he is “optimistic” that these changes will slowly but substantially change how much energy the College uses.
Switching over to this system is, however, going to necessitate a lot of campus construction in the next two decades. Welker said he believes this “disruption” will be worth it, as it brings with it a “massive opportunity” for the College to reduce its greenhouse gas impacts.
This “tiered process” involves massive teams of people to execute and a lot of “rearrangement,” Welker explained.
Another limitation, Welker said, is the supply chain and labor challenges, which colleges and universities nationwide are running into.
Leader of the student-run Dartmouth Energy Alliance Nathaniel Roe ’23 expressed appreciation for the recent efforts of the College.
“It seems that in the last five years, the College has really stepped up to the block on the topic of climate by more formally making strides to divest itself from fossil fuels and provide programming, learning opportunities and research opportunities that intend to serve students around the topic of energy,” Roe said.
Through Roe’s projects in the DEA as well as in his engineering projects, he has viewed the College as “open-minded and flexible” to exploration in the energy space.
“I think Dartmouth College is going to be the leader in the energy space. There are some of the smartest, most well-published researchers related to energy and energy justice in the world in [the Irving Center], and I think a lot of people could really benefit from that,” said Roe. “That gives me so much hope for the future, and I think that’s what we should be really excited about. This place that we have, it's an incredibly powerful basis that we can build a low carbon future on.”
Greenleaf emphasized that Dartmouth is at a critical point in its energy process as decisions are made about plans going forward.
“As someone who’s part of it, I think there was a lot of responsiveness, and they did a great job of including a lot of different voices and expertise,” Greenleaf said. “Now what the College does with that — Do they adopt these goals? Do they actually follow through with them? — That’s the next step.”