Wellesley Takes a Stand on Climate Change

Illustration of a globe (representing the Earth) with a butterfly flying out of it

Illustration by Michael Austin c/o Theispot.com

In April, Wellesley announced a plan to address the urgent challenge of climate change that will affect how the College produces and distributes energy, how the endowment is invested, and how the campus community works together to reduce energy consumption.

The E2040 working group of the board of trustees was formed in 2019, following the work of a previous group that looked at campus energy needs. “The charge to E2040 was to chart a course to carbon neutrality—toward a carbon-free future,” says Laura Daignault Gates ’72, trustee and chair of E2040.

There are many sources of carbon emissions on campus, but the group is targeting the largest, says Dave Chakraborty, assistant vice president of facilities management and planning, and a member of the Sustainability Committee and E2040. “What we are targeting is carbon neutrality for electricity, heating and cooling energy, cooking, fuel used on campus,” Chakraborty says.

The plan will move the College from its 2010 base of 32,600 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero by 2040. In 2015, the College had set the first milestone to reduce emissions 37% by 2026—which it will hit nearly four years early. To achieve this, the College has invested $6 million to implement energy-conservation measures and has switched from producing its own electricity to using the state grid, which gets about 40% of its power from renewable sources (and is slated to be 100% renewable by 2050). Also, instead of using natural gas to produce cooling energy, the College will use the cleaner electricity. “We are reducing electricity use in the buildings, and we are making these massive changes in the power plant itself. After all this is done, we will come down to about 22,000 [metric tons of emissions],” Chakraborty says. “How do we get to zero? Out of the 22,000, about 60% comes from the boiler plant only, about 30% comes from electricity use, and 10% comes from smaller sources.”

Currently, the College burns natural gas to generate steam to distribute heat. “The toughest nut to crack is the emissions from the heating plant,” Chakraborty says. The existing system is designed to operate with high-temperature steam produced by burning natural gas. Current technology can deliver heating using low-temperature hot water, which requires much less energy to produce and can be created by renewable energy sources, such as geothermal wells. However, all the buildings on campus will need renovations and new equipment to utilize a more efficient system.

To tackle heating, the College will convert the largest buildings on campus, including the residence halls, by 2030. At that point, it will determine which renewable energy source is best. Between 2030 and 2040, a new heating plant and distribution system will be installed, and final conversions will be completed. The E2040 committee decided to defer the final decision on what energy source to use for the new plant until 2030 because technology is changing rapidly.

All this comes at a cost. The College estimates that the planned renovations will total more than $500 million, which will include long-deferred maintenance. “This is an investment,” Gates says. “And we have to make it. We can’t keep putting this much carbon into the air, so we have to make adjustments [to] our infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, several campus constituencies approached the Subcommittee on Investment Responsibility about limiting fossil fuel investments in the endowment. The College had stopped making any new commitments to fossil fuel investments three years earlier, but had not formalized the strategy. In April, the board did just that. “The board agreed that we’re stepping away, and we’re not going to come back,” says Debby Kuenstner ’80, chief investment officer. Specifically, the board prohibited investments with managers whose primary investment focus is on companies in the fossil fuels industry. In addition, the College will make no new investments in private equity funds that focus on fossil fuel investment, and will seek to phase out existing interests in private equity oil and gas funds “if it becomes financially viable,” Kuenstner says. When the subcommittee made its recommendation to the Investment Committee, they indicated that “we think we should make this a permanent prohibition, but we also think that the whole community needs to pitch in,” Kuenstner says.

And so they did. Students in Econ/ES 199 created a set of carbon-reducing recommendations that students can adopt, which the student body voted on and approved in March. The Sustainability Committee presented a similar set of recommendations to academic and administrative councils, which faculty and staff approved. These actions will affect dining and catering, transportation and faculty travel, mini-fridges, and heating and cooling. Once implemented, they could result in a reduction of more than 2,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas per year.

Each change means a step toward addressing the climate crisis. “The E2040 plan, endowment action, and community contributions are all a continuum,” Chakraborty says. “All of the pieces are integral to each other to make the campus carbon neutral.”

“We can be proud of the energy plan that was approved and the endowment policy the trustees have adopted,” Gates says, “because we’re not just taking action, we’re taking a stand.”

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