Climate Action Plan Update

November 17, 2021

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

As you likely know, Amherst College committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 through various initiatives, including the Climate Action Plan (CAP). I write to give you an update on recent developments that are underway to achieve our sustainability goals.

Amherst formed the New England College Renewable Partnership three years ago, a first-of-its-kind collaboration of five New England colleges—Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, Smith and Williams—to build a new solar energy facility that  provides zero-carbon electricity to each institution. This partnership brings us one step closer to fulfilling key actions laid out in the CAP, specifically the goal to procure zero-emission renewable electricity to meet our energy needs. 

I’m pleased to report that the facility, located in Farmington, Maine, has been completed and has just gone online. It will create enough electricity to power about 17,000 New England homes. Amherst is contracted to purchase 10,000 megawatt hours (MWh) per year of renewable energy, or about half of the College’s annual electricity use and nearly all of its purchased electricity. (The other half is self-generated by a combined heat and power plant on campus.) This will reduce our CO2 emissions by more than 3,200 metric tons per year or 17.5 percent. The College had already decreased emissions by more than one-third in the past 15 years.

Other practical benefits of this project are that it demonstrates the feasibility of utility-scale solar electricity generation in New England, allows each school to “lock in” the price of electricity for the next 20 years, and helps each of the five campuses move closer to their climate action goals. Additionally, the project created jobs and will generate tax revenue of nearly $17 million over its 30-year lifespan. We hope this initiative will inspire other institutions to work together on similar projects.

Another key part of the CAP is the transformative modernization of our heating and cooling infrastructure, which will be powered by renewable electricity. This transformation relies on installing “low temperature hot water” underground piping distribution to replace our archaic steam distribution as the foundational element. The thermal energy for this infrastructure is derived from ground-source heat pumps.    

Initially, we hired a leading energy consultant to define a conceptual strategy and establish the technical and financial feasibility. Over the past year, we engaged expert design engineers to translate that conceptual strategy into a more detailed design, which supports the construction of the systems, in four phases, between now and 2030. The design engineers performed the original cost estimate, but more recently a construction manager performed an independent cost estimate, which was significantly more than the original. To a great extent, this variance is caused by the pandemic, which has created commodity price spikes in steel, general construction materials and labor shortages. It is also clear that the design engineers underestimated some of the complexities of conducting the work in the context of our campus’s very dense and interwoven network of underground utilities.

These challenges are happening as new technologies for the thermal energy sources are rapidly evolving, which could enhance our project. So, along with known pandemic related supply chain disruptions and the inability to guarantee procurement schedules, we have decided to postpone the start of construction by a year until the spring of 2023. This will give us time to analyze the budget variance and other options to more efficiently provide the thermal energy for the low-temperature hot water piping network. Use of alternative thermal energy sources such as air-source heat pumps could significantly and positively affect the project plan, its cost, and the end result. Importantly, our Facilities team and construction manager have carefully analyzed this postponement and have determined that subsequent phases can be accomplished in time to achieve the 2030 carbon neutrality goal. 

While we are disappointed not to be starting construction when we thought we would, we remain committed to the goal that matters, namely, to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

Sincerely,

Jim Brassord
Chief of Campus Operations