Editorial: College lacks ambition in climate fight

  • Exhaust rises from a smokestack in the center of Dartmouth’s campus during a football scrimmage at Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. Dartmouth burns about 3.5 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil annually. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Published: 10/1/2022 10:00:19 PM
Modified: 10/1/2022 10:00:17 PM

How is it that an institution as rich in intellectual, financial, technological and engineering resources as Dartmouth College still heats its campus by burning each year 3.5 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil, one of the dirtiest known sources of carbon-based power? That this situation persists in the year 2022 is reason enough to question the depth of the college’s commitment to combating climate change. But as our colleague Frances Mize reported last month, it’s far from the only one.

Yes, Dartmouth is home to the $160 million Irving Institute for Energy and Society, opened with fanfare last year and dedicated, in the words of Dartmouth president Phil Hanlon, to being “a catalyst for the creation of new knowledge and of future energy leaders.” And as Mize noted, the institute is housed in a technological marvel of an energy efficient building whose automated energy management system, for example, allows it to effectively regulate its own temperature and lighting.

On the other hand, a recent graduate who studied how Dartmouth’s energy goals compare with those of peer institutions concluded that Dartmouth is “basically at the bottom of the Ivies” in terms of emissions reduction. For example, Dartmouth has pledged to achieve an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while Brown has committed to net-zero emissions by 2040, and Harvard and Yale by 2050. And it would appear that Dartmouth is lagging in getting to a nearer-term target: It has committed to a 50% reduction from a 2010 baseline by 2025, but is only a little more than halfway there now.

Experts such as John Sterman, a Dartmouth graduate who currently directs the Sloan School of Management at MIT, told Mize that an 80% emissions reduction by 2050 is “not ambitious enough at all,” especially given that the climate is warming more rapidly than forecast even a few years ago and that it takes a long time for large educational institutions to implement new energy systems and retrofit existing buildings to make them more efficient.

Emblematic of the difficulties is the college’s continued dependence on No. 6 fuel oil, trucked in from the New Hampshire Seacoast, to produce the steam that heats the campus. A few years ago, Dartmouth considered building a biomass plant as a replacement, but soon abandoned the idea when a group of alumni versed in climate and energy issues rebelled. It is not clear what alternatives the college is now considering, but what is clear is that time is not on the side of the college or the climate.

Why is it that the college seems to lack a sense of urgency on this issue? Perhaps because the administrative bureaucracy is by nature conservative and reluctant to commit the financial resources up front to make investments that would be truly transformational (and not incidentally save money in the long run). In that context, to what better purposes could an endowment of $8.5 billion be put?

And because we style ourselves as advocates for the interests of the Upper Valley, we also wonder how the research undertaken by the Irving Institute could benefit the regional community that Dartmouth calls home. For instance, Mize interviewed Stephen Doig, senior researcher and strategy adviser at the Irving Institute, whose area of expertise is “deep energy retrofits” such as upgrading the insulation, windows and heating and cooling systems of existing buildings.

We are true believers in this form of energy conservation; translating this expertise into affordable measures that could be easily replicated in Upper Valley houses and commercial buildings would be a high value research offshoot of the institute — especially if it were combined with the Thayer School of Engineering’s considerable intellectual and technical resources.

If the college truly aspires to lead in the realm of climate change, it needs to walk the walk faster and farther than it has so far done.

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