Transparent eco-decisions

By Shaina Kasper

I recently saw the plans of Macalester’s new Studio Arts building and I am so excited! I think that it will be an incredible place for Macalester’s visual artists, as well as a great new home for sustainable and responsible heating and cooling for Macalester. I do not think very often about where my heat or air conditioning comes from. The arts building houses Macalester’s three boilers for the heating system in the basement and a new (2008) and highly efficient chiller system next to it; these two plants provide the heating and cooling for 26 campus buildings and 11 privately- and college-owned residences. The boilers run on a combination of natural gas and fuel oil, depending on price and availability. Natural gas is not so bad in its greenhouse gas emissions, but is still a fossil fuel that tears apart ecosystems and communities through its extraction. However, the fuel oils (#2 and #6) are particularly nasty fossil fuels. An Oxygen Control trim system was installed in 2011 which improves boiler efficiency. Macalester’s commitment to energy efficiency has already resulted in drastic reductions of both electricity use and heating fuel use from 1988-2009. Under Macalester’s sustainability plan, our energy plan is to “Invest in energy efficiency and switch to carbon-neutral fuel sources.” We have a midterm strategy to eliminate fuel oil usage by switching to natural gas by 2015 and to invest in carbon-neutral, renewable fuel sources such as biogas by 2025. This means that Macalester will have to either not release any greenhouse gasses (such as CO2) into the atmosphere, or offset our emissions. Macalester is a leader for college campus sustainability; President Brian Rosenberg is in the leadership circle of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment which committed Macalester College to becoming climate neutral. While we have done some pretty incredible energy efficiency and sustainability initiatives, these are only a drop in the bucket of what is left to be done. Campus heat alone accounts for nearly 30% of Macalester’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Including Purchased Electricity, energy accounts for approximately two-thirds of the college’s annual emissions. One of the three boilers (from 1996) will remain; the two older boilers are being replaced by one larger boiler. This boiler has already been purchased. Mark Dickinson, director of facilities services, said that this boiler is “the best equipment for our application,” a competitive price, and more environmentally sustainable as it will no longer burn #6 fuel oil and is significantly more efficient. That being said, this new boiler will still burn natural gas and #2 fuel oil. Few at Macalester know that this purchase has been made, or how it will directly impact our commitment to sustainability and climate neutrality. The decision was made without student and faculty input. Environmental Studies Professor Louisa Bradtmiller commented “I understand the physical and budget constraints that facilities is working under, but I’m frustrated that they are committing Macalester college to decades of business as usual.” My public schools in rural Vermont have solar panels on the roof and heat from wood chips. Needless to say, I was disappointed by what I saw as a lack of transparency of Macalester acting on our commitments for sustainability. When I spoke to Mr. Dickinson, he said that there was not a committee formed to make a decision on the new boiler purchase because there were no other options. We are in a city so we cannot provide the storage space necessary for biofuel options that we have at my old high school. Also, building a new home for a new type of heater system such as biofuels would be enormously expensive. Electric boilers were also an option, but one that would be very costly as well as being reliant on Xcel Energy, 50% of which comes from coal. Also, Xcel was uncertain if they could even provide the large amount of electricity that would be required in the coldest times. Finally, firing the boilers on only natural gas (the so-called ‘cleaner fossil fuel’) is a priority. However, on very cold days when Xcel Energy’s natural gas is going at full force to other homes and businesses in the Twin Cities, they ask for Macalester College to switch off their natural gas connection. During these times, the boilers use #2 fuel oil. Dickinson bought the most efficient and therefore sustainable boiler that could under these constraints. The conversation about the heating system at Macalester brings up many unresolved issues regarding ideals and pragmatics, transparency and communication, environmentalism and budgetary concerns. How can we expect our College to follow through on our sustainability commitments when such actions are deemed impossible by the decision-makers? If we continue on this path, we are committing ourselves to buying up carbon offsets to reach our goals. As the UN’s COP (Conference of the Parties)18 is meeting in Doha and discussing the possible extension of the Kyoto Protocol, such issues need to be addressed not only here at Macalester, but on a global scale as well.