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Shrinking the Footprint

Vassar has signed two deals with sustainable energy companies that will substantially shrink the college’s carbon footprint. A recently restored hydro power plant is now providing the college with about 10 percent of its electricity, and a solar farm that will be built about 30 miles from the campus will soon supply another 11 percent of Vassar’s needs.

Alistair Hall, the college’s sustainability coordinator, says the two projects are part of an overall strategy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. “Addressing climate change is not a technological problem,” he says. “We know the issues and how to solve them. It’s just a matter of implementing them.”

The hydro plant is owned and operated by Gravity Renewables, a subsidiary of Enel Green Power of North America, a Colorado-based firm that has restored dozens of such plants across the country. The one that is supplying power for Vassar is located in Beacon, about 15 miles from the campus. It was originally built in the 1870s to supply power for a carpet factory and was rebuilt in the summer and fall of 2015, Hall says.

Electricity from the plant is connected to a power grid operated by a local utility company, Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp., and the value of the energy sent to the grid is deducted from Vassar’s utility bill, Hall explained. Vassar will save about $20,000 a year in utility costs.

“Vassar College’s investment in clean, dependable hydro energy is great news for the college, the environment, and the local economy,” said Ted Rose, CEO of Gravity Renewables. “This project’s impact goes beyond the climate change benefits. Vassar is supporting one of New York’s historic economic drivers—each small hydro facility employs local operators, pays taxes, and supports the local economy.”

The solar farm is being built by BQ Energy of Poughkeepsie on a reclaimed landfill in the Town of North East, about 25 miles from the campus. Vassar signed a 20-year agreement with BQ Energy to use all of the power generated there. The project is expected to begin supplying electricity by the summer or early fall of 2016. BQ Energy, founded in 2002, is a worldwide leader in renewable energy projects on brownfields and landfills. The firm has developed award-winning renewable energy projects throughout the United States.

“Vassar College is committed to reducing its carbon footprint as one of the ways to address the challenge of climate change threatening our planet,” says President Catharine Hill. “These two renewable energy projects contribute to our goal of reaching carbon neutrality as quickly as possible, while also supporting the renewable energy sector, which will need to be part of the global solution to climate change.”

The two new energy deals are expected to reduce Vassar’s annual carbon emissions by about 3,000 tons, Hall says. The college is already seeing substantial energy savings through the use of efficient LED light bulbs for most of its outdoor fixtures, and more bulbs are being installed inside some buildings on campus. “The college’s master plan establishes energy standards for buildings and vehicles and other energy users as we go forward with new buildings and renovations,” he says.

Sophie Bedecarre Ernst ’17, a student who has been involved in the implementation of several sustainability projects on campus, including the new hydro and solar initiatives, says she hopes and expects to see additional energy-saving initiatives on campus before she graduates. She notes Hill has asked the College Committee on Sustainability to write a Climate Action Plan and investigate ways to achieve carbon neutrality. “This is a huge step in the right direction,” Bedecarre Ernst says. “Though we have a ways to go, we will greatly benefit by commu­nicating with peer institutions. This year-long planning process will be essential and will let us dictate the mechanisms Vassar will adopt in terms of tackling neutrality. Adopting best prac­tices from other liberal arts colleges will be a productive way of achieving neutrality.”

Hall says he’s pleased to see the growing interest in sustainability efforts on campus. “It’s been very exciting to watch this unfold,” he says. “My approach to my job is, ‘There are no bad ideas; bring them all to us and we will look at all the options.’”

Most energy-saving projects not only reduce carbon emissions, they also save the college money, Hall notes. “Our annual utility bill is about $4 million,” he says. “We ought to be capturing as much of that as we can and put it to use for worthwhile campus activities.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, December 15, 2015