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Bowdoin needs to turn down the heat and turn up the pace on climate solutions

April 12, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Most of the time, my room on the first floor of Helmreich House is boiling hot. Sometimes I appreciate the nice retreat from the bitter cold of the Maine winter, but if I’m trying to sleep or clean my room, it’s intolerable. I’ve heard similar complaints from many other College House residents.

My real grievance is not my physical discomfort but the huge amount of energy being wasted by Bowdoin’s inefficient heating system. This problem isn’t unique to college houses. Several of the rooms in the Roux Center for the Environment, where I often have classes, experience random periods of intense and unnecessary air conditioning.

Bowdoin has been carbon neutral since April 2018, but this doesn’t mean that the college doesn’t emit carbon dioxide. Bowdoin achieves carbon neutrality by a combination of using renewable energy and purchasing carbon offsets and renewable energy credits to counteract its emissions.

Winter heating is currently responsible for 75 percent of Bowdoin’s carbon emissions. Given that Maine winters are cold, it makes sense that a significant portion of Bowdoin’s energy use goes toward heating buildings, but the current system is excessive and inefficient. To make matters worse, energy use only increases when students like me keep fans running all night just so we can sleep.

Thankfully, Bowdoin cares about sustainability and is prioritizing “clean heat” in its “Sustainable Bowdoin 2042 Plan.” The College aims to decarbonize its heating by switching from its existing natural gas-fired heating plant to a low-temperature hot water system (LTHW). The Sustainable Bowdoin 2024 plan outlines two phases for achieving this goal. First, between 2022 and 2037, the College has committed to a 30 percent reduction in heat-driven emissions. It will do this by measuring the airtightness of buildings and tightening envelopes where necessary; replacing and retrofitting heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; beginning to roll out its LTHW heating system and connecting it to all newly constructed buildings to this system. During the second phase, between 2038 and 2042, the College aims to eliminate carbon emissions from heating by decommissioning the existing natural gas-powered steam heating plant and switching to a generator powered by renewable energy.

It is great that Bowdoin has a comprehensive plan to reduce its emissions from heating; however, the timeline for achieving these goals is too far away. According to the most recent climate report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 67 percent of 2005 levels by 2035. Unfortunately, the Biden Administration’s goal of cutting emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030 is not ambitious enough to set the country on track to reduce emissions by 67 percent a year later. And, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country is not even on track to achieve this less ambitious goal. All of this is to say that we need to act quickly to limit climate warming. If institutions like Bowdoin have the capacity to slash greenhouse gas emissions today, they should do so.

It may be costly and time-consuming to switch from a natural gas-fired heating system to an LTHW system, but the College should prioritize this switch, even if we have to give up some indulgences as a price. I love food trucks on the quad and free “you belong at Bowdoin” shirts as much as the next person, but increasing funding to reduce emissions is worth some sacrifices. Assessing the necessity of new building construction may also help the College reduce spending and channel more funding to climate solutions.

Aside from the LTHW, the actions laid out in the first phase of the plan, for which the College allocated 15 years, can and should be done relatively quickly. First and foremost, Bowdoin needs to closely monitor how much heat buildings are getting; if temperatures are outrageously high, the College should address this immediately. Students can help call attention to inefficient energy use by submitting work orders if their rooms or classrooms are routinely receiving excessive heat or air-conditioning–-don’t worry, I already submitted mine. Decreasing heat usage by tightening building envelopes through added insulation, window and door replacements, and sealing of gaps and cracks is another simple and inexpensive way to increase heating efficiency. This is already in the first phase, but it should happen as soon as possible.

I’m proud to be a student at a college that leads its peer institutions in climate change mitigation efforts, but I think Bowdoin should be more ambitious. Yes, Bowdoin is just one institution, but every reduction in emissions counts, and institutions affect each other; if Bowdoin decarbonizes before 2042, Colby, Bates and other NESCAC schools will be more motivated to do so as well.

Tori Bacall is a member of the Class of 2026.


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