Smith College plans big cut in emissions with $200M overhaul of heating, cooling systems

  • Smith College students cross the central campus in Northampton. KEVIN GUTTING / File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2022 9:09:22 PM
Modified: 5/2/2022 9:07:50 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College will break ground this month on a $200 million project to convert campus heating and cooling systems from fossil fuels to electrically powered geothermal energy, cutting carbon emissions by 90% with the goal of making the Elm Street institution carbon-neutral by 2030.

The college announced on Monday that its board of trustees approved the Geothermal Campus Energy Project, positioning Smith to become one of the first colleges in New England — if not the first — to achieve carbon neutrality through the near elimination of fossil fuel consumption, rather than a switch to biofuels or the purchase of carbon offsets.

“It is a moral imperative for Smith College to do its part in mitigating the devastating effects of climate change on our planet,” college President Kathleen McCartney said in a statement, adding that she is “enormously proud” of the trustees’ decision. “I am exceedingly grateful to those who served on the District Energy Working Group for their hard work, which resulted in the analyses that informed this historic decision.”

Smith College is responsible for 10% of the city of Northampton’s carbon emissions, according to college materials describing the new program, and “most” of the campus’s emissions come from heating buildings. The current heating system, run on fossil fuels, is about 70 years old.

The project will be completed in three overlapping phases.

From May 23 through summer 2024, crews will focus on the North Campus near the Cutter and Ziskind residence halls on Henshaw Avenue, while the second phase will encompass the Smith Quadrangle on Kensington Avenue from 2023 through summer 2025. Work on the central campus will run from summer 2025 to summer 2028, according to the college.

The plan, funded primarily through low-interest bonds, is expected to reduce water consumption by 10% and improve the campus’s air quality, college officials said, as well as make buildings more comfortable. It follows the 2019 installation of a geothermal system at the campus’s Field House.

“Smith takes seriously issues related to sustainability and human-caused climate change,” Alison Overseth, chair of Smith’s board of trustees, said in a statement. “The approval of the Geothermal Campus Energy Project reflects the board’s belief that climate change is an urgent, complex problem — one that demands ambitious, multifaceted plans of action from individuals and institutions. This project is an integral part of Smith’s solution to this critical issue.”

UMass Amherst announced last week that it, too, would go carbon-neutral by converting to geothermal energy by 2032 and an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2030. The 1,500-acre campus accounts for 20% of all carbon emissions that come from Massachusetts state buildings and institutions, according to university officials, making it the largest contributor in that category by far.

The state’s own carbon-neutrality target date is 2050, and although that is also the official target date for the city of Northampton, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra has said she is pushing for a more ambitious date of 2030.

Like UMass, Smith’s plan hinges on the concept of heating infrastructure electrification and fulfills an existing commitment to becoming carbon neutral.

Lucy Metz, a senior at Smith College who has spent all four years involved in higher education sustainability research, said she was on the District Energy Working Group that took the plan “across the finish line.”

She said the climate research she has been involved with “really points to heating infrastructure electrification as the biggest and most important action a college can take.”

An engineering science major, Metz will graduate later this month and take a job as a climate-focused energy consultant in Cambridge.

“It’s a really exciting and powerful step that Smith is taking. These direct campus infrastructure upgrades are some of the highest-leverage actions that [higher ed institutions] can take to carry them toward their carbon-neutrality goals,” Metz said. “I think that students are really excited about it, as well. … Climate change is definitely on the minds of students here.”

Dano Weisbord, associate vice president for campus planning and sustainability, said he is “really happy for our students, for whom climate change is a top-line issue. They are deeply concerned about what this means within their lifetime, and it’s important for them.”

He said the plan is “very similar” to the one put forth by UMass Amherst and some of the design work was done by the same firm. Smith College is also planning a transition to an all-electric vehicle fleet, and the college recently bought an electric lawnmower.

“We have been working on this since, literally, 2007 when Smith College signed the carbon commitment,” Weisbord said. “The current version, that we’re now putting to work here, we probably started in 2016.”

Not only is it good for the environment, Weisbord said, but the plan will lower the college’s operational expenses. He hopes it will serve as a model for other institutions that are hesitant to go carbon-neutral.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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