By Rob Weir
Amherst students used to grab napkins at the end of the food line. Now eco-friendly dispensers are placed strategically throughout Valentine Dining Hall, and students take only as many napkins as they need. On its own, a news flash of this magnitude hardly makes the earth tremble. But read on; humble napkins are the tip of a much larger iceberg of energy conservation and environmental stewardship. “Sustainability” is the new campus watchword, a catchall phrase encompassing small efforts and multimillion dollar plans; grassroots activity and central planning; good deeds and smart finance; faculty instruction and student effort.
In a now prophetic 1977 speech, President Jimmy Carter warned Americans that sources of non-renewable energy were finite, that our vehicles were inefficient, that we wasted two-thirds of all the heat we generated, and that our choices were to “continue what we have been doing before” or “face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions.” It’s now clear that President Carter’s predictions about the ultimate cost of ignoring the energy crisis were right on the money.
And money is the operative word. Environmentalism isn’t just for eco-freaks anymore. Ask Jim Brassord, the college’s director of facilities planning and management. He’s been at Amherst for nine years, and his background is in engineering, not Greenpeace campaigns. Brassord processes the college’s $4-million annual utility bills and has his finger on the pulse of what it costs to do everything from renovating buildings to hauling trash. Or chat with Todd Holland, the energy manager shared by Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith, who says, “Energy costs are going to double in the next few years. You simply can’t afford to ignore energy anymore.” That’s not hyperbole; Amherst currently has a fixed-rate contract for electricity through an agreement with the state Health and Educational Facilities Authority. That contract expires in 2007, and rates will increase by at least 60 percent, perhaps as much as 90 percent.
The choices are stark and clear: be more efficient and cut costs now, or pay for energy by slashing staff and programs later. The college has chosen the proactive route. The good news is that much can be done just by being smarter. Refitting Orr Rink cost $150,000, about half of which was offset by utility incentives. A reflective ceiling reduced the amount of heat transferred to the ice, more efficient lighting slashed electrical use, and computerized sensors increased refrigeration efficiency. This project will save the college approximately $20,000 per year, and will pay for itself by 2008.
If you think napkins are humble, how about light bulbs? Holland notes that if every American household switched just five bulbs to energy-efficient fluorescent lights, the equivalent energy of 21 power plants would be saved. In that spirit, Facilities Planning is engaged in a campus-wide effort to replace old-style lighting with systems recommended by the Energy Star program. This entails renovating buildings to take advantage of natural illumination, installing energy-efficient ballasts and fixtures, replacing traditional bulbs with low-energy alternatives, and using timers and sensors to regulate lighting.
Small changes can indeed make a big difference. Students have also pitched in. Marsh Dormitory recently won a campus-wide energy competition by reducing its consumption by 30 percent over a two-week period, simply by following smart conservation practices like turning off unneeded lights, consolidating refrigerators and unplugging wall chargers. Another no-cost initiative that saved several thousand dollars was “The Big Turn-Off,” a campaign to have students unplug their appliances before leaving for winter break. What engineers call the “vampire load,” that trickle of electricity that lights clock radios and VCRs, or keeps a fridge running, adds up quickly with 1,600 student users. Holland notes that even a vending machine costs about $400 a year to operate.
Even more dramatic savings have come from Amherst’s participation in the Million Monitor Drive, a nationwide campaign to make computers go into “sleep mode” after 10 minutes of non-use. The savings from this have nearly offset the college’s expected annual increase in electrical consumption. One hears much about the digital revolution, but seldom about its costs. As Brassord and Holland note, the college’s total fossil-fuel consumption has not increased in several years, but electricity use has risen by about 2 percent per year, largely due to computers, printers, peripherals and all of the cell phones, digital cameras and PDAs being recharged.
The centerpiece of the college’s energy-reduction plan will be a $5-million cogeneration power plant. Once on line some 18 months hence, the new power plant will pay for itself in five years and then generate annual savings of about $500,000. It will also reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 23 million pounds a year, to levels far below targets implemented by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. (The U.S. government has yet to ratify this treaty, but Amherst College and the Town of Amherst have committed to it by joining the Cities for Climate Protection program.)
Forget political ideology; compliance with emissions standards is a big issue in the Pioneer Valley. Visitors marvel over the verdant fields that surround Amherst, but most are blissfully unaware that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates Amherst’s ozone and smog problems on par with those of Houston. The EPA hasn’t requested that local communities reduce carbon dioxide emissions; it has mandated it.
For part of the year the culprit for much of the Valley’s bad air is Midwestern power plants whose particulates are carried by prevailing winds. But in winter, the winds shift and about 75 percent of all pollutants come from local vehicle exhaust. Currently two of the college’s six community pool vehicles are “hybrid” gas/electric alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs), a Ford Escape van that gets 36 miles per gallon and Honda Civic sedan that gets 48. Amherst has also replaced many of its buses and large vans with more efficient minivans, and all of the campus’s heavy equipment has been converted to efficient diesel power. This means far less carbon dioxide and particulate matter coming out of tailpipes.
AFVs also underscore the college’s emphasis on environmental stewardship. There’s little doubt that energy costs are driving sustainability efforts, but getting greener is an effort that brings a smile to trustees and eco-warriors alike. Conservation projects often yield a return on investment of more than 40 percent, a yield which far exceeds that of the endowment. But a lot of what Amherst is doing is, simply, the right thing to do. The savings payoff for an ATV is five to six years, the outer limit for a general-use vehicle. As Brassord notes, “Our entire environmental footprint is dominated by the fuels we burn, and transportation is just a small part of this, but it’s a very visible part. The amount of promotion and good will we get from our hybrid vehicles is incalculable. They are our most-requested vehicles, and many people have come to think differently about energy as a result of them.”
The college has adopted other altruistic measures. The cleaning staff now uses citrus-based fluids instead of caustic chemical cleaners. It’s also cheaper to knock down and haul away a building than to do what was done with James and Stearns dormitories: dismantle them and recycle their reusable materials. Likewise, it’s less expensive to design new buildings or renovate old ones with an eye toward function rather than the environment. So-called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards are in vogue, but Amherst has opted to forego the cachet of a designation that, in Brassord’s words, is “an artificial standard that sets a floor rather than a ceiling and often forces one to procure materials or implement technologies that aren’t always in the institution’s best interest.” The new Earth Sciences and Museum of Natural History Building is a state-of-the-art structure that incorporates many features that go far beyond LEED standards, as do the new James and Stearns dormitories.
There is certainly no LEED standard that would require the college to do as it has done with campus renovations. Chestnut beams taken from Williston Hall to make it compliant with seismic codes were re-milled and used for flooring when the building was renovated a few years ago. The same fate awaits granite from the foundation of Charles Pratt dormitory, the former geology building that is now being converted to a dorm. And for sheer altruism, it’s hard to beat Amherst’s cooperation with Habitat for Humanity. Not only did the college donate 3.4 acres of land to the affordable housing organization, it is coordinating with Habitat to design energy-efficient homes that will use solar cells to produce electricity and heat water. Some of the hardwoods used in construction will be sustainably harvested from the college’s woodlands.
All over campus there are signs that eco-awareness is blossoming. Brassord notes, “My role in seeing projects come to fruition is gratifying, but engaging the student body and faculty is just as satisfying. Energy is in our consciousness now.” Brassord helped develop an Interterm symposium for students titled “What Does it Mean to Be Green? The Future of Environmentalism,” and students are enrolling in academic classes with an environmental focus. Professor Larry Hunter offers a physics course for non-majors that is designed, in his words, “to educate students about our current energy situation and examine…future options.” Hunter engages students in projects ranging from measuring the energy consumed by their morning shower to building motors, generators and solar cells.
Professor Richard Fink adds a chemist’s perspective in his “Energy and Entropy” course. The course is designed in part to help students see “the quantitative connections between theory and the practical world around them.” Fink has a unique way of demonstrating the laws of thermodynamics. He challenges students to come up with their own alternative energy production systems and analyze them quantitatively “to determine how competitive they are with the usual methods of producing power.” They also visit and compare the output and efficiency of local power plants such as those at Northfield, West Springfield and Mount Tom.
Amherst students are starting to think about energy in other ways. A new group, Green Campus Advocates, hasn’t obtained official club status yet, but that hasn’t prevented it from doing a campus-wide energy audit and presenting the administration with a list of recommendations. According to Meaghan Kemp-Gee ’07, creating an environmental studies major is at the top of the list, followed by the construction of a LEED-certified building. She respects Brassord’s view that LEED isn’t always state-of-the-art, but feels such a structure would be like AFVs: “It would be great for recruiting, and it would also be a visible symbol of our environmental commitment,” she says. Green Campus Advocates also supports the creation of a campus board for environmental advocacy to advance environmental dialogue. Kemp-Gee hails from British Columbia and was encouraged to apply to Amherst by a family friend, David Suzuki ’58, an internationally acclaimed expert on sustainability. “His books opened my eyes,” says Kemp-Gee. “Many of the crises of this century will be about the environment.” She has hurled down the gauntlet to her peers: “We had about 60 percent student participation in the Million Monitor Drive, but our goal was 75 percent,” she says. “Students need to understand that we’re on a precipice and that one of the defining issues of our generation will be how well we deal with the environment.”
There are many challenges ahead, not the least of which is that Amherst College contains numerous historically important buildings that are an engineer’s nightmare. Fayerweather Hall, for example, is an architectural landmark designed by McKim, Mead and White. When renovated a few years ago, there was no way that triple-glazed windows were going to replace wavy antique glass in prominent areas. “In an ideal energy world we’d have a campus of new buildings, but I would be hanged from the railroad trestle if I proposed that,” jokes Brassord. “Our challenge is to achieve the highest standards for conservation while preserving a sense of place.”
About those napkins. It costs the college $80 per ton to landfill waste, and last year it did so to the tune of 600 tons, while recycling 250 tons. Recycling, by contrast, is free, and mixed paper and cardboard actually generate income. If the college reduced solid waste by just 20 percent, it would save nearly $10,000 per year. Maintain this for two years and you’ve got the price of another Honda hybrid. Call it ice cubes chipped from the berg.