Solar Energy, Higher Costs: College Provides Updates on Climate Action Plan

Chief of Campus Operations Jim Brassord provided an update on the college’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) to the campus community on Nov. 17. The update outlined the recent opening of a collaborative solar energy facility and challenges that have arisen in implementing the CAP.

A newly completed solar energy facility will provide the college with zero-carbon electricity, which will reduce its annual CO2 emissions by 17.5 percent. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

On Nov. 17, Chief of Campus Operations Jim Brassord released a letter to the campus community outlining an update for the college’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). The CAP update covered the recent opening of a collaborative solar energy facility, as well as challenges that have arisen in the attempt to modernize the college’s heating and cooling infrastructure. Students and faculty are pleased that the college will continue to pursue the CAP initiative but still desire more concrete action going forward.

The CAP, which was initially adopted in January 2019, aims to achieve “climate neutrality by 2030 through transformative modernization of [its] energy system from fossil fuels to renewable electricity.” The plan includes a four-phase construction agenda, complete with a cost analysis, a year-by-year timeline, and various diagrams illustrating the radical changes taking place on campus. The project’s main focuses include transitioning to electrically-powered hot water heaters and modernizing older buildings on campus that are energy inefficient.

The updated plan revealed the completion of the new solar energy facility in Farmington, Maine. The facility is a collaborative project between Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, Smith, and Williams — together comprising the “New England College Renewable Partnership.” It  provides zero-carbon electrical energy to each of these institutions. Brassord said that the completion of the facility is a huge step forward, reducing Amherst’s CO2 emissions by 17.5 percent.

The letter also describes how the pandemic has posed unforeseen challenges to the project due to changes in the commodity and labor markets as well as supply chain issues. As a result, the plan’s original cost estimate is now obsolete, and the new cost is “significantly more than the original.” Due to these conditions and other complications, Amherst has failed to begin its construction efforts for the first phase on its original timeline.

Despite the setbacks, Brassord assured students, faculty, and staff that the college remains committed to the original goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.

Connor Barnes ’25 of the Environmental Justice Alliance (EJA) was enthused by the Solar facility’s completion. In a statement to The Student, Barnes wrote “it is exciting to hear about the new solar energy facility’s completion, showing that the college’s efforts are yielding results.”

However, Barnes and other members of the EJA were less impressed with the rest of the update. Barnes expressed discontent with the progress of the CAP, noting that “the overall attitude of the task force at this point is best described as hopeful,” as opposed to actionable.

“With Amherst College’s resources, and its interest in global climate change,” Barnes continued, “I want to see this project escalate into something more than hopeful.” Barnes concluded by saying he would like to see more initiative and active conversation within the Board of Trustees rather than mere “passive talk.”

Professor of Environmental Studies Rebecca Hewitt echoed Barnes’ sentiment. She stressed that the project’s success will depend on “opportunities for students to engage with the multifaceted nature of the CAP.” Hewitt agrees that there is a need for an proactive and dynamic approach to presenting the CAP and its inevitable subsequent updates.

Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Rachel Levin had similar inclinations to those of the EJA and Dr. Hewitt on the update. In a note to The Student, Levin stated that, “In the original thinking around the CAP, connecting technological changes to decarbonize the campus with education and student opportunities was super important, so that students were involved closely, able to learn from the changes, and more invested. I think that this could still happen, but there clearly needs to be much more cross-talk between facilities and students around the CAP.”

“Given the existential climate crisis, there’s no time to waste in moving towards carbon neutrality,” Levin continued. “Every year of delay, even if we do ultimately meet our carbon neutrality goal on time, means more carbon in the atmosphere in the short term.”