Sustainability Matters at Amherst College
August 23, 2005
Director of Media Relations
AMHERST, Mass.—When your annual utility bill approaches $4 million, you can save a lot of money by focusing on energy conservation-and lighten the load on the environment, too. That's the situation at Amherst College, which has committed itself to the practice of sustainability: meeting its needs for energy while preserving the ecological, social and economic systems which we all rely upon. The rules are simple, but the rewards are great: reduce both the amount of energy consumed and the impact on the environment.
Amherst is working to burn fewer fossil fuels in college vehicles and to reduce carbon emissions. Two hybrid vehicles, which combine a gasoline-powered engine with an electric motor to enhance gas mileage and lower emissions, are in use. The college's hybrid Honda Civic gets up to 48 miles per gallon while its hybrid Ford Escape SUV gets up to 36 mpg. In the rest of its vehicle pool, Amherst has replaced all the large passenger vans with mini-vans that use less gas and are easier to drive. The college's heavy equipment has been converted to diesel-already an improvement in efficiency over gasoline-and a year ago the switch was made to "bio-diesel," a clean-burning fuel derived from agricultural products.
Surveying the construction site that is the Amherst campus in summer, a visitor might question the college's commitment to minimizing environmental impact. But even before building begins, Amherst is thinking about sustainability. A basic tenet is: reuse and preserve existing buildings. Whenever possible-as last summer when some of the oldest campus structures, North and South College, needed extensive modernization-existing structures are preserved and rebuilt from the inside out. Also being preserved are Morris Pratt and Morrow Dormitories, Appleton and Williston Hall and Charles Pratt, the geology building which is being converted to a dormitory.
This summer James and Stearns Halls, two dormitories built in the '50s where renovation was not feasible due to code issues, were deconstructed-not demolished. Every piece of the old buildings that could be reused was recycled. Although it's slightly more expensive to deconstruct, the value of the recycled materials actually offsets the additional costs.
All new and renovated buildings are designed to maximize energy efficiency by use of sophisticated computer automation to control the temperature. In public buildings that enjoy lots of sunshine, automated controls adjust lighting intensity to minimize energy use. Four years ago, Amherst built a central air conditioning plant that produces 1,500 tons of cooling at double the efficiency of the old systems. The college is in the process of designing and constructing a cogeneration plant that will generate all of its electricity while converting the "waste" heat of the exhaust system to usable thermal energy in the form of steam. Not only will this high-efficiency plant save the college in excess of $500,000 per year, it will reduce greenhouse gas carbon emissions by more than half, to levels far less than the Kyoto protocol thresholds.
The solid waste recycling program at Amherst has been in place for years, and it now more than pays for itself. The custodial and grounds crews collect and process mixed paper, cardboard, newsprint, glossy paper, all bottles and cans, used motor oil, scrap metal, leaves and used laser cartridges. Recycling works in some unexpected ways, too. For instance, new carpet installed at Amherst College is made from recycled materials.
Another small efficiency that matters is that computers on campus are programmed to go into a "sleep" mode when not being used. Vending machines have been optimized to cycle according to usage patterns as detected by automated sensors. Last year in the college dining hall, the amount of waste was reduced simply by moving the dispensers for paper napkins from the serving areas to the tables, where students take only as many napkins as they need.
Sustainability is a painstaking job. Last fall, Todd Holland, the recently appointed "energy manager" at Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, began assisting Amherst in identifying and implementing energy conservation initiatives. Holland 's shared position, created by Five Colleges, Inc., represents a two-year pilot effort funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to encourage collaborative models in administration. Energy management was labeled a top priority by physical plant directors in a Five College study that recommended the establishment of a shared position, similar to two other Five College positions in risk management and recycling, to assist the schools in administering the purchase of utilities and in developing and implementing a self-sustaining energy conservation program.