Column: Dartmouth committed to getting energy system right

To the Valley News
Published: 11/7/2019 10:10:25 PM
Modified: 11/7/2019 10:10:14 PM


Something awesome is happening at Dartmouth. Over the past 10 years, the college has deepened its commitment to environmental sustainability. As readers may be aware, one focus has been on our energy system, now organized under the Dartmouth Green Energy Project.

Currently, we use No. 6 fuel oil to produce steam that is distributed to heat more than 100 campus buildings. This system is inefficient and produces about 40,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. The question before us is, how will we replace that heating capacity with something better?

In the last year or so, the science on climate change has come into sharp focus. We don’t have much time to reverse the most catastrophic chain reactions caused by warming global temperatures. At Dartmouth, we must build a bridge from where we are now to a combustion-free future and we must do it quickly. The question is, how do we do it, what is the bridge made of, and how short can we make it?

We face similar choices in our own lives. How should we change what we’re doing to reduce our negative environmental impacts? Is it better to insulate your home or buy an electric car when your daily driver wears out? Better to drive fewer miles or recycle more effectively?

The answers are not simple, even for someone like me who asks these questions every day. Environmental sustainability often requires making hard decisions about resources and choosing between unequal options. Making such decisions at an institutional level is even more complex. Dartmouth has many stakeholders, each with different interests. We have operations that can’t be compromised. For example, Dartmouth operates hundreds of freezers that hold research samples representing hundreds of years of work by faculty and students — we cannot compromise the operation of these freezers for even one minute.

We are confident that our first step is to build a more efficient, flexible and resilient energy distribution system, one that enables us to move away from combustion. To do that, we are investing $140 million in the transition to a hot-water distribution system that will make more and better options available to us and will reduce our demand for energy by more than 20 percent. The transition represents the bulk of the cost and the work involved in the Green Energy Project, and it is exciting to contemplate.

Next, we must decide on the appropriate energy source needed to heat this water. One option is to burn local, sustainably logged wood, in the cleanest way possible. This option reduces some of the negative supply chain impact, invests in a local energy system and improves our resiliency.

At the same time, burning wood for heat creates emissions and those emissions are recaptured only as trees grow back. As experts in climate science have refined their analysis — in documents including the recent International Panel on Climate Change report — it has become clear to us that we need to work quickly at Dartmouth. We also need to work smarter. Is investing a lot of money in any one combustion system a good idea? Or, should we deploy our capital in different ways?

Dartmouth is diving more deeply into questions including: How can we sustainably generate heat? What does our route to no combustion look like? How can we make this path as short as possible? This will, no doubt, slow our process at a time when we know we must act quickly. However, in my view, we are investing this time wisely. We are serious about our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one of the sustainability goals set two years ago by President Philip J. Hanlon. We are also serious about making choices that reduce negative, noncarbon impacts and enable positive ones over time.

The awesome thing that is happening at Dartmouth is a process. It’s a process of collaborating with the town of Hanover, bringing intelligence and humility to the table, listening, and building our actions on sound science. We are working hard and in good faith. We hope this process brings Dartmouth and the greater Hanover community together. We are willing to take longer before we commit to developing a new energy system so that we are able to ensure the result we want.

There are no perfect answers. Each choice has trade-offs. When we are done, we likely won’t have one answer that pleases everyone. But we hope to have a wise, ambitious, prudent and innovative path forward to a future that meaningfully changes our part of the world for the better.

Rosi Kerr is the director of the Dartmouth Sustainability Office.

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