It's getting hot in here

By Peter Wright

An emergency measure on the agenda for this week’s Board of Trustees meeting has sparked unrest among some Macalester students about their role in the school’s decision making. The measure would allocate $7.5 million to be spent on a new air conditioning system, but members of the Macalester Conservation and Renewable Energy Society, or MacCARES, are questioning the transparency of the process.Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton said the measure to replace the cooling system has happened faster than expected because the current system does not have the capacity to handle increased demands from the Leonard Center and the projected needs of the new arts complex.

“In this case,” Wheaton said, “we had a study that was done late last winter into early spring that gave us a different result than we had expected.”

Sustainability Manager Suzanne Hansen said she learned about the plans to replace the system at the same time as MacCARES members-about two weeks ago. Although she was careful not to be overly critical of the new system or Facilities Management, who spearheaded the search for the new system, she did say that she would have supported more research if there had been more time.

“It doesn’t give us the time to do an analysis on what the best possibilities from an environmental point of view and from a financial point of view are,” she said.

Wheaton, who approved the financial aspects of the project, said the process to replace the system happened quickly simply because of the immediate need to relieve the stress on the school’s current system. He said that it probably seemed like short notice to students because much of the research was done over the summer.

Macalester’s current cooling system is buried just north of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center. Speaking to a group of students on Wednesday, Director of Facilities Mark Dickinson said the current system uses ice-frozen at night-to cool air that is then distributed throughout the air-conditioned buildings on campus.

He said the school is currently using two coolers. One was installed in 1985 and the other was added in 1994 to handle the renovations on Olin-Rice. In the time since their installation, the chillers have been pushed beyond their full capacity.

“We don’t have enough capacity to provide chilled water to all of the campus,” Dickinson said.

Wheaton said simply adding another chiller would have been too complicated, so Facilities Management began the process of finding a new cooling system at the end of last year. He said that although no oversight committee was formed, the staff in Facilities consulted numerous engineers and considered different cooling options before they settled on the contract with the Michaud Cooley Erickson engineering firm of Minneapolis.

Once Facilities had settled on what they considered the best option, they submitted their proposal to the administration for financial approval.

MacCARES member Kai Bosworth ’10 said that one of the main concerns of his organization was the lack of student and sustainability staff consultation that occurred during the process of deciding what to do about the cooling problems.

“It didn’t really involve all the actors that have a stake in this,” she said.

In a statement issued by MacCARES, the group states that the process has been “deeply unsustainable and contrary to the vision of promoting collaboration and participation in the development of sustainable and cost-effective infrastructure.”

Dickinson said that students were not immediately considered as people who would be concerned about the project simply because it seemed like standard infrastructure repair. He said that had the project been a building students would use, there would not have been any delay in asking for opinions.

“There wasn’t an effort to exclude students,” Dickinson said.

The perceived rush is simply because the project will be such a major undertaking that it could take the entire fall and winter seasons, when the air conditioning is shut off, to complete the replacement, Wheaton said. In fact, he said that if the trustees approve the measure on Saturday, the engineers may be ready to begin working on Monday.

“This whole thing has run quicker than any of us would like, frankly,” Wheaton said.

Hansen said that heating and electricity together account for roughly 75 percent of Macalester’s carbon footprint. Although the new system is being billed as significantly more efficient than the current system, it still runs on fossil fuels. MacCARES was interested in examining alternative resources.

Bosworth said that they are also concerned about the long-term impact of replacing the system because it might preclude future sustainability efforts, at least in the short term. He added that the college needs to be considering ways to replace the current inefficient heating system.

“We think there’s a better way to do it than just half way,” she said.

One of the main alternatives MacCARES wanted considered was geothermal heating and cooling, which uses deep-penetrating subterranean pipes to transmit the natural cold temperatures of the earth into a distribution system. Although geothermal has been used regularly for individual buildings-including one currently under construction at Grinnell-Hansen said that she has only heard of two smaller college campuses that are completely cooled with geothermal.

Dickinson said the main problem with adapting geothermal energy to Macalester is the scale of the campus.

He said that the standard geothermal system relies on wells sunk roughly 200 feet into the ground that use the lower layers of soil to cool a circulating liquid. He said that each well needs to be 15 to 20 feet apart from any other, and that the campus would need roughly 2,400 wells to match the capacity of the planned system-enough to essentially cover the entire campus.

Wheaton added that Macalester’s location is not particularly kind to geothermal sources because the school sits roughly 40 to 50 feet above bedrock, which means the wells would have to be drilled into solid rock which would add to the cost and likely push back the system’s launch.

Nonetheless, MacCARES members and Hansen said that they will always be open to more research on alternative ways to increase Macalester’s sustainability. Hansen added that the school’s cooling system is still better than having many localized air conditioning units.

“You already have some efficiency by using . a district system,” Hansen said.

Bosworth said that one of the main steps to making the campus more energy efficient lies with community members practicing energy saving techniques on their own, without relying on administration to handle everything. He said that MacCARES would like to take a more “holistic” approach to energy conservation.