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College alters neutrality policies as 2020 nears

As the 2020 deadline for Bowdoin’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality approaches, the College is both reviewing its environmental policies and embarking on a publicity campaign for its sustainability efforts. 

A new website for Sustainable Bowdoin, the College’s initiative dedicated to environmental sustainability and its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2020, went live last Thursday.“It has an improved visual design, but it’s really more about content,” said Director of Digital and Social Media Holly Sherburne at last Friday’s quarterly meeting of the Sustainability Implementation Committee. 

New features include a timeline with significant events in Bowdoin’s pursuit of environmental sustainability and a narrative video explaining the carbon neutrality pledge.

The update comes as the College’s approach to the goal of carbon neutrality has seen significant changes in recent years. 

Most dramatically, beginning in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, the College stopped buying credits to offset its energy use.

For the first few years of the pledge, which came in October 2009, the College purchased renewable energy certificates (RECs), which were intended to offset the environmental impact of non-renewable emissions from electricity on campus. 

Director of Finance and Campus Services Delwin Wilson said that 35 percent of the College’s electricity is “green” in accordance with Maine state law. When the College was buying RECs, he said, they were intended to offset the other 65 percent of the College’s electricity use. This amounted to offsetting around 12,000 kilowatt hours a year, with an annual cost of around $35,000.

While these offsets helped to lower the College’s net emissions, they were criticized by some who saw them as a shortcut or a symbolic gesture. A working group of students and faculty members convened and recommended that the College stop buying RECs. 

“People thought, while it’s symbolic to buy them, we’d be better off taking the money and investing it in the campus. So that’s what we’ve been doing,” said Katy Longley, vice president for finance and administration and treasurer. 

“We thought that it made sense to use it to reduce our own source emissions on campus before purchasing offsets,” Wilson added.

Bowdoin’s net emissions rose in FY 2014 as a result of the decision not to buy offsets, but  the College has succeeded in lowering its actual emissions since the pledge began.

According to the College’s Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Update for FY 2014, the College emitted 15,813 metric tons of greenhouse gas during FY 2014. This was a decrease of 17 percent from FY 2008, the baseline year the College uses to measure its progress on the carbon neutrality pledge. 

Bowdoin’s stated goal is to achieve at least a 28 percent reduction in emissions by 2020. After that, said Wilson and Longley, the College is likely to resume buying offsets. 

“In 2020, we’ll have to do some big thing to reach neutrality, so at that point we probably will have to buy some RECs in order to be totally carbon neutral,” said Longley. 

An analysis from the Portland-based Competitive Energy Services, which is working with Bowdoin on its sustainability measures, projects that the College will have to buy 12,760 tons of carbon dioxide offsets in 2020 to achieve carbon neutrality.

For now, though, the College is focused on other areas. A range of topics were discussed at last Friday’s meeting, including last summer’s solar installation at Sidney J. Watson Arena, part of the largest solar installation in the state of Maine. 

While the panels were covered with snow for much of the winter, consultants from Competitive Energy Services said that the panels have still been producing as much energy as they expected.

The committee also discussed rethinking heating in student dorms and ways to grow Sustainable Bowdoin’s presence on campus. With its new website, Sustainable Bowdoin is hoping to expand its visibility on campus and beyond. 

“We took a look at sustainability as a whole—what are the messages we want to share?” Sherburne said at last Friday’s meeting. 

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