College should put a freeze on chiller purchase

By MacCARES

Roughly a week ago, a group of students in MacCARES was notified of Macalester’s intention to finalize the purchase of three chillers to expand campus cooling capacity with a more efficient system via a $7.5 million dollar emergency allocation from the Board of Trustees in its meeting on October 11, 2008. Considering that the chiller system accounts for nearly 10 percent of Macalester’s carbon emissions and is inherently connected to another 40 percent of our emissions through the heating plant, such a decision is crucial to Macalester’s sustainability planning.

As Macalester students, we are deeply concerned with the strategy, content and process of Macalester College’s decision.

First, we feel that the planning process that has led to the decision to replace the chillers has not paid adequate attention to our overall financial, energy and ecological sustainability given the crises that we are currently facing. The College has given partial consideration to energy concerns by planning to install an energy-efficient chiller model to replace the old system, which currently suffers from engineering malfunctions.

However, despite this good intention, the investment creates a “sunk cost” barrier to longer-term heating and cooling solutions that will be necessary in the face of rising energy costs, tightening economic conditions, and the increasing need for action on climate change.

Second, we do not feel that due diligence has been pursued in identifying alternatives to chiller replacement. Given that many buildings are still over-cooled in the summer and therefore inefficient, more consideration should be given to the reduction of our cooling load.

We further feel that a $6,000 campus ground-source heat survey to better understand the campus’s true capacity to provide its own heating and cooling resources is necessary and reasonable given the value of the information to be learned and the massive proposed cost of this chiller exchange.

Both Facilities Management and MacCARES have been in contact with Jeff Urlaub, a geothermal contractor who has proposed a fourday, $6,000 campus survey that would provide a better sense of our real natural campus resources. Considering the value of the information to be gained and that the cost is less than 0.1 percent of the price of the new chillers, such a study is very reasonable.

The information could change our understanding of the need for two versus three chillers, or provide for a reevaluation of our overall energy and infrastructure strategy. Jeff Urlaub even offered to start this survey on Thursday, Oct.r 2 to complete it in time for the Board meeting. Unfortunately this study is no longer possible to complete before the Board meeting because, as we understand, Urlaub was told by Facilities that Macalester was no longer interested.

We encourage the college to undertake this survey as soon as possible as an investment in better data for campus infrastructure planning in the future.

Finally, we feel that the decision-making process that created this proposal has been deeply unsustainable and contrary to the vision of promoting collaboration and participation in the development of sustainable and cost-effective infrastructure.

Students were barely informed of the cooling problem, let alone invited to participate in its resolution. Our actions can be much more significant, creative, and constructive if we work together as team members in the collective process of strategically planning and managing Macalester’s energy infrastructure and sustainability.

Even when faced with an urgent situation that could potentially generate a significant amount of opposition and friction, please reach out instead of trying to fast track without student participation. Especially given the scale of this investment at a moment of financial, energy, and climate crisis, failure to involve students in the process is unacceptable and unproductive.

We encourage the college to join us to foster a culture of constructive student participation as we move into the full campus sustainability planning process that the administration has already endorsed.

Members of MacCARES can be reached at [email protected]