Town Hall Covers Updates to Climate Action Plan

On March 21, the college held a virtual town hall to discuss its most recent updates to the Climate Action Plan. The meeting covered the college’s commitment to pursuing climate action by overhauling its entire campus energy system to move to a low-carbon and eventually carbon-neutral system.

On March 21, the college held a virtual town hall to discuss its most recent updates to the Climate Action Plan (CAP). Executive Director of Planning, Design, and Construction Tom Davies, Director of Sustainability Wes Dripps, and Chief of Campus Operations Jim Brassord led the presentation and Q&A. The meeting covered the college’s commitment to pursuing climate action by overhauling its entire campus energy system to move to a low-carbon and eventually carbon-neutral system.

The CAP, which the Amherst Climate Action Task Force began meeting in 2015 to formulate, has the overarching goal of having a meaningful and lasting impact on greenhouse gas reduction and management at the college. The CAP aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

The town hall highlighted the college’s participation in a new solar energy facility in Farmington, Maine, through the New England College Renewable Partnership, which includes Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, Smith, and Williams Colleges, and enables the colleges to collectively purchase zero-carbon electricity. Administrators in attendance also discussed the planned modernization of the college’s heating and cooling infrastructure from steam-based fossil fuels to low-carbon ground-source heat pumps. Additionally, they elaborated on the technical and financial feasibility of the project in relation to the pandemic.

Chief of Campus Operations Jim Brassord announced in the meeting that the new solar energy facility now provides roughly 50 percent of electricity consumed on campus, which has reduced the college’s carbon footprint by about 17 percent. He explained that Amherst does not receive physical electricity from the Farmington solar facility. Instead, the partnership enables Amherst and the other colleges to use a financial instrument called a virtual purchase price agreement (VPPA), which provides them with renewable energy credits (REC) from the facility at a pre-agreed fixed price. The facility will sell the energy produced from its solar panels at wholesale market price at the time of the energy’s generation. If the market price is greater than the fixed VPPA price, then the college will receive the settlement difference. If the market price is less than the fixed VPPA price, then the college pays the solar facility to make up the difference.

“[Purchasing electricity from the solar facility] is carbon-neutral because we are able to retire the renewable energy credits that are generated from [the VPPA],” Brassord explained. In other words, by supplying money to the Farmington facility, the college offsets the purchased electricity from its actual provider, Eversource Energy, which composes half of its electricity use.

He also noted that partnering with other institutions to form a VPPA was the most cost-effective way Amherst could find to obtain green energy on campus. “It’s scale economy, and that is to say if we went to the market, and it is a complex market that involves developers and permitting and regulations, and state agencies, … as an independent, with only our demand at play, it would really tilt the financial balance on it,” said Brassord. “By combining our demands with the other institutions, we really increase it to a utility scale.”

The remaining 50 percent of Amherst’s electricity, Brassord added, is derived from the combined heat and power plant on campus. “We will eventually wean off and divorce ourselves from that combined heat and power plant and we will derive all of our electricity either through PPAs or on-site generation,” he said.

In addition to a transition to carbon-neutral electricity, the CAP includes switching Amherst’s steam-powered, fossil-fuel-based heating system to a ground-source and air-source heat pump system. Brassord noted that the new system is three to six times as efficient as the college’s boilers or chillers, which compose the college’s current heating system.

“There’s a range of options for how you generate that heat [using the new system], which gets us away from … fossil fuels; basically, we’re combining heating and cooling [so that] everything goes through the same system, and so you can move heat from where it’s not wanted to where it is wanted,” Brassord said.

In an interview with The Student, Director of Sustainability Wes Dripps said that the college plans to break ground on the new heating system in the spring of 2023. He noted that the college initially planned to break ground this spring, but that the supply chain issues caused by the pandemic and higher than anticipated costs led to a one-year pause.

The planned changes to the heating system and the solar facility should eliminate the college’s direct emissions from its processes and its indirect emissions from purchased energy, respectively.

However, Dripps noted that under the proposed plan, the college will still have some minor residual emissions because it will rely on its reserve fossil fuel system as a backup system to help meet peak energy demand for a few days a year.

The college will consider and fund a range of means to offset any residual emissions so that it can meet its carbon neutrality goal. Dripps said that the college will be very intentional about its decisions on how to make those offsets, and will “engage the campus stakeholders to help us navigate that space.”

He added that despite these offsets, the college is still prioritizing making tangible infrastructural changes to achieve carbon neutrality. Dripps noted, “I’m not aware of a single institution in higher ed that’s been able to actually reach carbon neutrality with no offset.”

Senior Lecturer in Biology and Environmental Studies Rachel Levin told The Student that the CAP is similarly ambitious to other institutions’ plans, but that its emphasis on infrastructural changes makes it relatively unique. “The plan itself was originally quite similar to other higher ed institutions, though in its original design the committee (Amherst Climate Action Task Force), of which I was a member, was especially cognizant of the dangers of offsets, in that they are hard to monitor and don’t necessarily provide true carbon emissions reductions,” Levin said.

While Levin praised the college’s commitment to obtaining green energy, she noted that there are additional ways Amherst can reduce its carbon footprint. “There is also some low-hanging fruit in terms of increasing building energy efficiency with smart thermostats — for example, a constant, solvable problem are dorm rooms that are so hot in the winter that students have to open the windows,” she said.

Levin also added that, “given current technologies, it would seem that the college could easily shift its vehicle fleet to EVs [electric vehicles].”

Although the CAP’s initiatives are expensive, Dripps said that the main cost is the upfront infrastructure, such as physically implementing the new heating system. He described the CAP as a strategic long-haul play that will eventually turn-cost effective as the price of fossil fuel energy rises. A graph shown in the town hall revealed that the college predicts to break even with the spending associated with the CAP around 2045 to 2050.

“We’re really committing to making the infrastructure changes that are necessary to upgrade our kind of aging system,” Dripps said. “I know others have just gone out and bought green oil and things like that without really addressing the infrastructure side to it, and I think, although ours is going to be maybe a little bit of a longer process, it’s the right process.”