Smith College well underway on $220M plan to become a geothermal, carbon neutral campus

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030.

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030.

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030.

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030.

Jim Gray, the associate vice president of facilities and operations at Smith College, talks about the $220 million Geothermal Campus Energy Project that is expected to cut carbon emissions by 90% and make the college carbon-neutral by 2030. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Some the pipes being laid across Smith College’s campus as part of the school’s geothermal project, an ambitious project to help the school meet its goals of carbon neutrality by 2030.

Some the pipes being laid across Smith College’s campus as part of the school’s geothermal project, an ambitious project to help the school meet its goals of carbon neutrality by 2030. CONTRIBUTED/BETH HOOKER

Some the pipes being laid across Smith College's campus as part of the school's geothermal project, an ambitious project to help the school meet its goals of carbon neutrality by 2030.

Some the pipes being laid across Smith College's campus as part of the school's geothermal project, an ambitious project to help the school meet its goals of carbon neutrality by 2030. —CONTRIBUTED/BETH HOOKER

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 10-23-2023 5:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — More than a year into a six-year, $220 million project to convert Smith College into a geothermal campus, officials used last weekend’s two-day presidential inauguration ceremonies to highlight the work that’s expected make its campus carbon-neutral by the end of the decade.

Announced to great fanfare in the spring of 2022, the Geothermal Campus Energy Project aims to convert campus heating and cooling systems from fossil fuels — what the college has used for 80 years — to geothermal energy. When the new system is complete, the school hopes it will last just as long, if not longer, than its current one.

College officials said at the time that the project would make Smith one of only a handful of schools in the nation — and likely the first in New England — to achieve net-zero carbon emissions through the near elimination of on-campus fossil fuel combustion rather than through other means, such as carbon offsets or biofuel conversion.

“It’s a huge step forward in the modernization of our campus infrastructure,” said Jim Gray, associate vice president for facilities and operations at Smith. “It’s the next quantum leap we’re engaging in right now.” 

A Friday presentation at Alumnae Hall for visitors attending the inauguration of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton showcased several aspects of the ongoing project, which is divided into three phases starting with a section of Smith buildings located on the North Campus near the Cutter and Ziskind residential halls on Henshaw Avenue. That phase is expected to be completed in the late spring or early summer of next year.

According to Gray, the buildings on campus account 90% of the school’s carbon emissions.

“It’s all about heating and cooling the buildings, and so that’s what this project is really all about,” Gray said. “This is true throughout society —  the largest share of our emissions come from the places where we work and live.”

Smith’s solution to reduce emissions is to construct a series of wells that descend 800 feet into the ground in a closed loop. Liquid sent through the wells adjusts to the constant temperature at that depth, and is then transferred to a power plant on campus that extracts either the cooling or the heat from the liquid and amplifies it throughout the campus buildings using heat pumps.

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The campus also is looking to achieve carbon neutrality by purchasing solar power produced at off-site locations, such as a solar farm located in Farmington, Maine. Electricity needed to run the heat pump system is expected to be offset by the solar purchase agreements, according to the school.

While other schools are also pursuing buying such offsets to help achieve carbon neutrality, Gray said that Smith is unique among higher education institutions by constructing its own geothermal system.

“We can’t offset our way out of this problem,” he said. “Most [other colleges] have not taken the paths and actually go to the full extent of creating heating and cooling systems for their campus that themselves are carbon-neutral.”

Gray said that once completed, the project would not only allow Smith to become carbon-neutral, but also would save the college money in the long term, with the project expected to break even before 2040 from savings achieved by switching to the heat pump system.

“The community has been absolutely fabulous putting up with the disruption, knowing that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Gray said. “It’s a good, long-term financial investment for the college that will bear dividends for a long time into the future.”

After the completion of the first phase, the second phase is expected to take two years and will focus on supplying power to buildings around the Smith College Quadrangle on Kensington Avenue, home to many of the school’s student dormitories. The final phase of the project consists of the central campus area.

The geothermal project is expected to be completed in 2028, with the campus looking to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. The city of Northampton has also set 2030 as the goal of achieving carbon neutrality, with Smith College accounting for 10% of the city’s carbon emissions.

Beth Hooker, the school’s director of sustainability, said that the project is also providing academic opportunities for students who have been able to study policy implications of the Inflation Reduction Act, through which the school aims to seek federal assistance from for the project. Other students studying geographic information systems are creating digital story maps to display the project.

“We get to connect this to student learning and research and really make it come alive in the classroom,” Hooker said. “We’ve had five senior theses in engineering around this particular project.”

Smith College first signed a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality in 2007. The current geothermal project was first conceived in 2016, with the board of trustees approving the project to begin construction in 2022.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.