By Sarah Marshall
Today, on the 53rd Earth Day, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced the campus’s commitment to becoming a carbon-neutral campus, using only 100% renewable energy, in approximately 10 years. Describing himself as an eternal optimist, the Chancellor said he is convinced that the University can take meaningful steps to help prevent a climate crisis.
The flagship campus is not only the largest emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Amherst, but the largest contributor of any public entity in the Commonwealth, accounting for about 20% of GHG emissions from public facilities.
The Chancellor and others described the University’s action this morning in the Student Center Ballroom. The program, called UMass Carbon Zero, has been in development for two years and was driven by student demand. Carbon Zero builds on earlier University accomplishments in green energy and sustainability, as well as its considerable academic, engineering, and policy expertise. Three UMass buildings, for example, already use geothermal systems for heating and cooling, including the police station on East Pleasant Street and Crotty Hall on North Pleasant Street. This blog has previously reported on the solar canopies at several UMass parking lots.
The two largest components of the plan to eliminate GHG are (1) replacing the steam-based heating system, which uses fossil fuels, with a low-temperature hot water system powered by green energy produced on campus or purchased, and (2) using geothermal heat storage and extraction – at 500 to 800 feet below ground – to prevent energy losses. Other components include increasing the energy efficiency of the campus’s 300 or so buildings, improving the campus’s ability to track energy use, and expanding solar generation.
A pilot project will undertake these infrastructure changes in a collection of 40 buildings at the southwestern part of campus to demonstrate proof of concept and refine plans for converting the remaining buildings to these new systems in several waves of construction and renovation. This is a task of enormous complexity and cost.
Benefits are expected to be significant, not only in decreased energy use and operational costs and increased thermal comfort. The changes will also position the University at the forefront of efforts to meet the Commonwealth’s climate change goals and serve as an inspiration and source of experience, research, and graduates who can fan out to other sectors of society and drive change. The University aims to lead by example.
I asked Chancellor Subbaswamy what this announcement means for Amherst, and he stated that not only will UMass’s plan have a huge impact on GHG emissions in town, but its efforts can inspire and instruct other local institutions, in part by announcing a target date for carbon neutrality. However, as a very large, public institution, UMass will need to secure funding from a range of sources that perhaps colleges with deeper pockets do not require.
The Carbon Zero project includes not only a physical transformation of campus but engagement across campus, involving students, staff, and faculty, in an interdisciplinary program called the Living Lab. Envisioned as distinguishing UMass among other universities also aiming for sustainability, the Living Lab intends to develop internships, training opportunities, new courses, and outreach activities to promote climate change mitigation.
UMass already offers more than 500 courses pertaining to sustainability, and aims to involve all departments, from Fine Arts to Public Health and Social Sciences to campus operations. A major goal is to develop a “carbon-literate” work force that will be the next generation of scientists and policy makers.
It is my hope that, as Carbon Zero gets underway at UMass, our own Town-sponsored efforts to mitigate GHG emissions can benefit from the expertise and experience located just up the street.