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.