Amherst College aims for carbon neutrality by 2030

  • The Amherst College Science Center is shown in this undated photo.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The Amherst College Science Center.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2019 11:36:48 PM

AMHERST — Amherst College has announced it plans to become “carbon neutral” by 2030, transitioning campus energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

The college’s plan calls for the use of electric heat pumps and geothermal energy sources to power campus buildings. The announcement of the plan comes almost four years after the college’s board of trustees approved a Statement on Sustainability and Investment Policy, which called for moving toward carbon neutrality, among other proposals. However, the plan does not include divesting from oil and gas holdings.

In a statement, college President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin said the plan comes as current research, including from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says the world has around a decade to reduce carbon emissions to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

“The trustees share the conviction that the college must address the threat of climate change, both by intensifying our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and by ensuring that we can continue to provide students with the best available education, one that prepares them to lead in the urgent work that must be done on a larger scale,” Martin said.

Carbon neutrality does not necessarily mean that the college will reach zero carbon emissions. Rather, it means producing net zero emissions by offsetting whatever fossil fuels are burned.

After Amherst College’s board of trustees approved its Statement on Sustainability and Investment Policy in 2015, a task force of students, staff and faculty began working to come up with a road map for carbon neutrality.

“The announcement today has been a long time coming,” said Laura Draucker, the college’s director of sustainability and a member of that task force.

Most of Amherst College’s emissions come from the heating and cooling of buildings, so the plan largely focuses on how to power those buildings without burning fossil fuels. Currently, for example, buildings are heated by steam that is created by burning natural gas. But under the college’s new proposal, the college would rely on geothermal energy and renewable electricity to power the system.

At a certain point underground, the water temperature is pretty constant at around 50 degrees, Draucker explained. A geothermal system would bring that water up to the building, and would heat or cool it with heat pumps powered by renewable electricity.

Last April, Amherst and several other colleges, including Hampshire and Smith, joined together to purchase electricity from a solar power facility in Farmington, Maine. Amherst will be purchasing 10,000 megawatt hours of renewable energy as part of the partnership, which accounts for around half of its current annual electricity use.

Amherst College already has experience with geothermal energy. At the Inn on Boltwood in downtown Amherst, which Amherst College owns, water is pumped from a well and used for heating and cooling.

“Similar to what happened with the inn, we would need to dig wells,” Draucker said of implementing a similar system on campus. “We’re not sure exactly where they’ll go yet.”

Draucker said the college hopes that energy-efficiency improvements and retrofits to buildings will eliminate the need for fossil fuels completely. But if there is still some need for combustion technology — on the winter’s coldest days, for example — Draucker said the college would need to replace those fossil fuels with biogas or consider offsets.

It is unclear what those offsets would look like, though in its announcement Tuesday the board of trustees said the college would not rely on the purchase of carbon offsets — a controversial method of reaching carbon neutrality that involves paying others to remove or sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Many of the specific details of the plan will be worked out as the college moves forward. An advisory committee will be created to help work toward implementing the Climate Action Plan, and Draucker said the college will look to engage students throughout the process.

Elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley, Hampshire College has already announced plans to make its campus “climate neutral” by 2022, and Smith College has announced similar plans for 2030. The University of Massachusetts Amherst previously signed on to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Draucker said that Amherst College may have been slower to announce its own plan, but she hopes alumni and students can be proud of what the college has decided to do.

In his letter to the campus community announcing the decision, trustees Chairman Andrew Nussbaum said the college looks forward to engaging alumni and students as the plan moves forward.

“The financial costs of the Climate Action Plan will be substantial, but they will also be manageable with the support of our entire community and careful financial and budgetary decisions that allow us to pursue this important work alongside other key priorities,” Nussbaum said. “The plan represents a necessary investment in the future not just of our college but the world our graduates will inhabit.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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