Bowdoin has decreased its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions ahead of schedule, putting the College on track to pass the benchmarks of its 2009 Carbon Neutrality Implementation Plan, according to a Sustainable Bowdoin report released by last week. 

The 14,467 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that the College released in fiscal year (FY) 2012 was 17 percent below the predicted level of 17,437 metric tons. Since FY 2008—when 19,153 metric tons were released—the College has decreased its emissions by 24 percent, and has surpassed expectations for emissions reductions since 2010. 

In 2009, Bowdoin committed to carbon neutrality by 2020. According to last week’s Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Update for FY 2012, the team of Bowdoin community members who developed this plan knew the goal would be “challenging if not impossible” to meet through on-campus improvements alone.

Director of Sustainability Keisha Payson said that barring technological breakthroughs in biofuels or energy, the school will likely have to purchase carbon offsets in order to achieve complete carbon neutrality by 2020.

“We live in Maine, we have to heat all the buildings on this campus. Chances are we’re going to have to purchase Renewable Energy Credits [RECs] or carbon offsets, and we do talk about that in the plan,” said Payson. 

Though Bowdoin currently purchases some RECs, they are not factored into baseline emissions counts. The College is committed to 100 percent “green” electricity, and while 35 percent of the Maine power grid is made up of renewable sources, the College offsets the remaining 65 percent by investing in hydropower and wind farms throughout the state. 

Last week’s report characterizes campus emissions in three scopes. Scope 1 emissions—which encompass onsite fuel combustion, College vehicle use, and fugitive refrigerants—have fallen 11 percent since FY 2008. 

Replacing heating oil with natural gas at satellite facilities, the 2011 installation of an efficient natural gas boiler in the central heating plant, and last summer’s completion of a multi-year project to insulate campus steam lines all contributed significantly to these decreased numbers.

“We have a much more efficient distribution system,” said Del Wilson, director of finance and campus services.

Though the central heating plant used 17 percent less gas in FY 2012 than FY 2008, the report states that “much of this decrease was weather-related,” as last year was nine percent warmer than the baseline year. 

“I try not to get too excited from any given year, because things like the weather can have such an enormous impact,” said Andy Price ’95, a consultant from Competitive Energy Services, which Bowdoin worked with to develop its plan. “But we also know a lot of good projects went into place.”

Scope 2 emissions—purchased electricity—decreased by 2,730 metric tons, a 34 percent reduction since 2008. 

In FY 2012, the campus purchased four percent less electricity than in 2008. According to Wilson, comparable reductions have only ever occurred when campus construction took a building off the grid for an extended amount of time.  

“This is the first time with no major capital project out there, in recent time, that we’ve seen a reduction in electricity,” said Wilson. 

He attributed this to both behavioral changes and to the installation of a cogeneration turbine in the heating plant, which is powered by steam otherwise wasted in the heating process. 

Price noted that with the constant increase of gadgets on campus—phones, tablets, monitors, computers—there’s a reliable one-to-two percent increase in yearly electricity, albeit one that Bowdoin avoided this year.

“We take all the projects into account, and we’re able to explain a lot of what we see, but there’s more going on that we can’t necessarily pinpoint, and I think it’s those individual actions,” said Wilson. 

Other factors accounting for the Scope 2 decrease are the replacement of metal halide bulbs with CFL bulbs in outside campus light poles, the addition of speed drives in Moulton and Thorne’s  kitchen exhaust hoods, and the estimated 24,000 kilowatt hours saved during the residence hall energy competition. 

Furthermore, there has been a shift in emissions accounting by the Environmental Protection Agency as more renewables are added to the Maine energy mix, leading to significant decreases in emissions per megawatt hour for the whole state. 

“In our original climate action plan we did state that we expected [GHG] reductions from greening of grid,” said Wilson. 

Scope 3 emissions—made up of faculty and staff travel, employee commuting, waste disposal, and transmission line losses from energy use—increased by 10 percent since FY 2011, but represented a net 30 percent decrease since FY 2008. 

In this category, waste-related emissions have decreased by 401 percent since 2008, and Bowdoin now sends its non-recyclable waste to a plant that uses it to generate power. The report states that “a change in modeling…that correctly assigns waste to its final destination accounts for the majority of this decrease.”

Auden Schendler ’92, the vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, said he believes that these accounting shifts are part of the complexity of Bowdoin’s project, and should be emphasized more in the report.

“The fact that the bulk of emissions reductions have come through accounting changes is neither good nor bad, it simply is part of the world we’re in,” wrote Schendler in an email to the Orient. “It should be overly discussed and seen as part of our education.”

Schendler agreed with the report that Bowdoin is effectively taking action to decrease emissions, though he challenges the College to be more honest in acknowledging the intricacies of a 2020 carbon neutrality commitment.

“If I were writing this report I’d both be much more forthcoming in the failures and chance of not meeting goals,” he said.  “Solving climate change is going to be a bitch. And so it’s the school’s job to teach to that.”