College takes positive steps toward energy conservation

This past week, Vassar College released its decision to adopt two clean energy initiatives that are expected to supply the school with 20% of the campus’ energy needs and dramatically curtail greenhouse gas emis­sions over the coming decades. The college is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint in the long run by collaborating with hydro pow­er company Gravity Renewables and solar en­ergy manufacturer BQ Energy and replacing a sizable percentage of its nonrenewable fuel with solar electricity.

“These two renewable energy projects con­tribute to our goal of reaching carbon neu­trality as quickly as possible, while also sup­porting the renewable energy sector, which will need to be part of the global solution to climate change,” stated President Hill in re­sponse to the initiatives (Vassar College, Vas­sar College announces two major clean en­ergy initiatives, enabling the college to meet more than 20% of its electricity needs, 9.16.15)

Considering the pushback that the admin­istration has faced from the student body in recent months, this energy conservation policy, finally reconciling the ever-widening gap between student and administrative in­terests, comes as a welcome gesture on the part of the College. Groups on campus such as the Vassar College Divestment Campaign have been protesting for the college’s de­tachment from practices like coal, oil and natural gas extraction for years, arguing for complete divestment from the fossil fuel in­dustry. VC Divest, along with the majority of the student body, advocates for increased sustainability and a commitment to improv­ing environmental conditions locally and globally.

Therefore, we at The Miscellany News would like to commend the school for recog­nizing the general requests of its community and implementing changes that represent the priorities of the campus as a whole.

However, if these initiatives are in fact a direct response to student activism, then it would seem as though the administration is only appeasing the call for divestment with a smaller scale plan for energy conservation. The majority of the campus’ energy is still dependent on fossil fuels, and the recent construction of The Integrated Science Cen­ter proved to be ecologically damaging, uti­lizing none of the clean power sources that the college will now be integrating accord­ing to the new initiatives.

It is also curious that the school is imple­menting these measures after a year of social outcry concerning racial tensions and sexu­al violence on campus. We must ask, then, is the administration distracting students with these measures to avoid addressing the issues that have thus far been the focus of campus activism?

Whether or not the college is avoiding standing points of conflict amongst stu­dents, it’s evident that Vassar College is fun­damentally motivated to contributing to the environmentalist cause. In 2011, the school enacted the Greenhouse Gas Reduction plan to cut back on emissions by 3% each year, scaling back on natural gas usage on three separate levels: on-site consumption of gas and oil for heating campus, emissions from purchased electricity and emissions from sponsored travel, employee commuting, JYA and off-site waste disposal.

Judging from the base fiscal year of 2005, the college was able to reduce total green­house gas emissions by 48% by 2013 (Vassar College, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inven­tory). Hopefully this is a good indicator that these initiatives with Gravity Renewables and BQ Energy will have long term benefits as well, and that trustees will continue in their efforts to promote energy conserva­tion despite any degree of success that these projects may yield.

If we presume that the initiatives are merely a step in a series of actions taken to better the environment, then we need to consider any additional improvements that Vassar can make to its plans for climate change.

Vassar College names 21 schools, includ­ing Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Bryn Mawr College and Colby College, as points of reference for comparative data studies; so, by analyzing the renewable energy poli­cies at these peer institutions, we can better ascertain whether or not it would be feasible for Vassar to achieve a “greener” campus.

At Amherst, select academic and residen­tial buildings are powered by solar panels and windmills, and similarly, Bryn Mawr be­gan operating on 100% wind power in 2014. Director of Facilities Services at the institu­tion Glenn Smith said, “We are supporting a movement for our country to move away from fossil fuels and towards a more renew­able energy source,” (Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr Continues Commitment to Sus­tainability with Renewable Energy Invest­ment, 4.3.14).

Bowdoin College, like Vassar, is moving towards carbon neutrality, and has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 17% in six years. The school hopes to become carbon neutral by 2020, and Colby, a national fore­runner in campus sustainability, is already carbon neutral.

Perhaps it’s time that we press for con­crete, goal-oriented deadlines as well. Vas­sar has made considerable progress with regards to on-campus sustainability princi­ples, but does the administration have a long term plan in place? Without any information relating to future developments or objec­tives, it’s difficult to trust that the school will remain committed to environmental activism, or even to the continuation of its agreements with Gravity Renewables and BQ Energy. And if, in twenty years, Vassar is still working with these companies, will the incremental reductions in greenhouse gas emissions really be enough to combat quick­ly deteriorating global climate conditions? It is likely that these measures will have to be reformed, or supplemented, in order to generate even a minor impact on the envi­ronment.

Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. With the college allo­cating a large part of its funds to the gener­ous financial aid packages that the campus community depends on, we must recognize that the decision to adopt these costly clean energy initiatives demonstrates a clear ded­ication to sustainability. Ideally, the school would work more closely with groups such as VC Divest and advocate a more hands-on approach to safe environmental prac­tices, as the initiatives lack the human ele­ment that’s instrumental in inspiring lasting change. While it is our duty to continually promote our beliefs and strive to better our institution, we have to evaluate which goals are attainable and which are not. We must derive some satisfaction from any amount of progress while pushing for ongoing im­provements.

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