Students and environmental professionals gathered in Quinby House on Monday night for an intimate panel discussion on Bowdoin’s use of renewable energy sources. During the discussion, hosted by the Bowdoin Organic Garden, panelists also considered the past, present and future of the College’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2020.
The panel was composed of three local environmental professionals, including Keisha Payson, sustainability director.
“I thought it was a really great evening … I would love to see more discussion like that on campus, more students engaged in the conversation about where we’re going with our carbon neutrality goal,” said Payson.
In 2007, Barry Mills, then president of the College, joined more than 600 colleges in signing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), effectively pledging to eventually bring the College to carbon neutrality. A plan was finalized and submitted to the ACUPCC in fall of 2009.
According to the plan’s definition, a “carbon neutral” institution is one that has a net zero carbon footprint. To achieve this goal, the institution hopes to eliminate carbon emissions as much as possible, but will not be able to do so entirely. All remaining carbon that is emitted as a byproduct of operating the institution will have to be offset.
A committee, including Payson, faculty, staff, students and trustees, initially planned the school’s trajectory and goals in 2008. A target neutrality date of 2050 was proposed, but was eventually rejected in favor of 2020 goal to increase a sense of urgency. Payson and others believed it would force the College to act on the plan.
The College judges its progress toward carbon neutrality using its carbon emissions in 2008 as a baseline. As of the end of the 2016 fiscal year, Bowdoin’s greenhouse gas emissions were 24 percent lower than they were in 2008. The College has reduced its own-source emissions 19 percent from the 2008 baseline, which is not at the final goal of reducing own-source emissions by 28 percent by 2020.
Monday night’s panel represented and opportunity for students to engage with the plan and the people who oversee it.
Tyler Shonrock ’20 acknowledged the availability of information on the project, but also desired a more active presence of the Office of Sustainability on campus.
“I feel like [the Office of Sustainability] could be doing more,” said Shonrock. “It’s not like they’re doing a bad job—students also need to … ask about it and find out for themselves.”
In addition to reducing its emissions, the College has purchased carbon offsets (Offsets) and renewable energy credits (RECs) in its efforts toward carbon neutrality. Panelists discussed the efficacy of these techniques.
According to Bowdoin’s Blueprint for Carbon Neutrality, RECs are “the ‘green attributes’ of a unit of electricity, meaning power generated from a renewable source such as wind, hydroelectric, and solar power.” Each REC is numbered and tracked as it is bought and sold to ensure they are used responsibility. There is no national registry for RECs, so a number of nonprofits, marketers and agencies are involved in their sale and purchase.
Offsets, another type of emission reduction credits, allow the College to buy “a ton of emissions reductions,” which may be used to counteract emissions that may not be totally eliminated, “such as those associated with heating oil.”
Kay Mann, community outreach coordinator for the Maine Green Power Program, works as an intermediary between consumers and Maine-based renewable energy producers. These producers provide the electric grid with hydroelectric, wind, solar and tidal power and sell RECs to those willing to purchase them.
According to Payson, depending on which provider RECs are purchased from, it could cost the College anywhere from $40,000 to $5 million per year to offset the remaining carbon footprint come 2020. This wide range can be attributed to supply and demand, location of power production and/or source of the energy.
The College was actively engaged in purchasing RECs from 2006 until 2014, when it decided to momentarily refocus the funds toward initiatives to reduce on-campus emissions.
“We said, ‘Let’s take a break on purchasing these RECs; that’ll give us six years worth of that money that we can keep putting in projects that will reduce our emissions.’ So when we know we’re going to have to buy RECs and Offsets to be carbon neutral in 2020, [we’ll need to purchase fewer] RECs,” said Payson.
Moving toward 2020, the Office of Sustainability is working on many behind-the-scenes projects like replacing lights, insulating pipes and converting oil- and propane-burning locations to more emissions-friendly natural gas.
Among NESCAC schools, Middlebury and Colby have already declared carbon neutrality. Middlebury did so through construction of a biomass facility, improving efficiency and pursuing alternative renewable energy projects. Colby—among other efficiency initiatives—has already purchased sufficient Offsets to declare neutrality.
Recently, national efforts toward carbon emission reductions were stymied by President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Bowdoin, along with 180 other institutions across the country, demonstrated its continued commitment to carbon neutrality by signing onto the “We Are Still In” this year.