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The Air We Share

At Williams College, the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions led to even larger sustainability commitments.

By Stephen P. Klass and Stephanie Boyd

Early in the winter of 2006, Justin Bates and Emily Russell-Roy launched a campaign to gather signatures from fellow students at Williams College, a four-year liberal arts institution in Williamstown, Massachusetts. At issue was environmental sustainability: Signatories wanted the administration at Williams to address the college’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Eventually, more than 1,100 students, faculty, and staff signed the petition, which requested that Williams reduce its emissions to an amount 20 percent below 2005 levels. Those signatures represented more than one third of the total population of the campus community, which serves 2,000 students.

President Morton Owen Schapiro moved quickly to respond to this rising awareness of sustainability. On Earth Day 2006, he issued a letter emphasizing that Williams was committed to “dedicating the resources (human and financial) needed to achieve a reasonable goal and to report annually to the campus on the college’s energy consumption and emissions.”

In January 2007—fewer than 10 months later—President Schapiro informed the campus community that the board of trustees had taken formal action relating to the petition. The board unanimously approved the goal of reducing by 2020 the college’s greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below its 1990-91 emissions level.

Here’s how we (and numerous other participants in the initiative) arrived at the adoption of the resolution in such a short time—and how we plan to meet this ambitious goal.

Rallying the Constituencies

To further consider the petition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, President Schapiro consulted with several senior staff members. The conversations led to the creation of the Climate Action Committee on which we served—Stephanie Boyd as committee chair, reporting to Stephen Klass, the president’s senior staff representative. The mission of this group was to make recommendations regarding emissions reduction targets and the strategies necessary to attain them.

The committee consisted of representatives from the campus community, including key faculty members, student leaders, the associate vice president for facilities and auxiliary services, the director of facilities operations, the budget director from the office of the provost and treasurer, the supervisor of the mechanical trades, and the utility manager. From the outset, members realized that the committee’s effectiveness would depend upon support from and collaboration with all campus constituencies: students, faculty, staff, alumni, and families. In other words, the process of determining and building a case for a “reasonable goal” for energy consumption and emissions would need to include gaining commitment to sustainable practices.

Several high-level questions helped to frame the committee’s early work:

  1. Were sweeping changes necessary? What was the institution’s current carbon footprint? How had that changed over time? How did current energy usage compare to that of the recent past? What were the causes for change, if any?
  2. How would the culture of Williams affect the committee’s ability to get commitment quickly? Inclusive and interdisciplinary discourse, thoughtful consideration, stakeholder collaboration, and strategic investment in institutional priorities characterize the Williams campus culture. To a large degree, Williams is a faculty-run organization. Several faculty members are appointed as senior staff for multiyear terms; they then return to the faculty ranks following their administrative service.
  3. Whose support would be instrumental in institutionalizing the principles that would spring from the committee’s recommendations? We knew that a statement of support from the board of trustees was necessary to drive true, fundamental change on campus. What would the board need from the committee to make an informed decision? How might we involve the board in this process?
  4. What did we—individually, as a committee, and collectively, as an institution—think were “reasonable” targets? Did “reasonable” mean significantly contributing to decreasing the rate of change of the world’s climate? Or did it mean doing what was financially and technically within the college’s means? How did climate change fit into the mission of a liberal arts college, nestled in the hills of northwestern Massachusetts?
  5. What were others doing? How could we most effectively evaluate the activity of peer institutions? Had they adopted goals or were they in the process of doing so? How aggressive were the goals and could they serve as benchmarks for our planned actions?

Eye-Opening Analyses

With those questions in mind, we began analyzing the campus’s past and present energy use, emissions, and building growth. Details available on previous energy consumption and on campus changes over the years were critical for persuading others that we had data to back up our assertions and for supporting our ability to convince others of the need for change.

Using an emissions calculator provided by Clean Air Cool Planet (www.cleanaircoolplanet.org), we determined that Williams’s greenhouse gas emissions had increased by 44 percent since 1991. Of the 30,600 tons Williams had emitted in 2005, 45 percent was attributable to burning residual fuel in the heating plant. Electrical consumption on campus represented another 37 percent of emissions.

What’s more, the college’s overall energy use had grown by 50 percent from 1991 to 2005. This came in spite of improving the utilities infrastructure, building a co-generation plant, implementing lighting upgrades and other efficiency projects, and constructing new buildings with some energy-efficient features. Additional building ventilation and cooling systems and the proliferation of technology were pumping energy use and expanding our campus footprint. Even as Williams’s student population held constant, our built environment had increased 22 percent since 1991. This was in large part due to significant growth in faculty and staff populations during that time frame.

“Despite thoughtful planning, we had not fully anticipated the environmental impact of our decisions,” observes Bill Lenhart, the college’s provost and treasurer. “Energy consumption”, he adds, “is not an issue that should be of concern only to the environmentalists among us.”

To better understand the overall increase in energy use, the Climate Action Committee examined individual buildings. Not surprisingly, we found that our science and information technology (IT) buildings consume the most electricity energy per square foot. Computers and servers require cooling; and laboratory ventilation systems increase airflow, which subsequently drives up heating and cooling requirements.

Our systems for metering electricity and steam heating are not yet state of the art, so analyzing energy consumption becomes an imprecise and time-consuming endeavor. Still, we found ways to work around the lack of sophisticated metering while engaging the campus community in our effort. One group of summer interns, for example, conducted an energy audit of the information technology building. Participants determined that the annual energy use for running and cooling the equipment in the main server room was 800,000 kilowatt hours, which accounted for more than 60 percent of the building’s overall electrical consumption. The lighting and plug load added approximately 22 percent to the total, with the building’s cooling and domestic hot water contributing nearly 16 percent.

Widespread Support 

The Right Number

Having analyzed reams of data and participated in countless campus conversations, the Climate Action Committee at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, arrived at the point of determining a recommended goal for reducing the college’s greenhouse gas emissions. Not surprisingly, gaining consensus within our small committee on the emissions reduction target was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the project.

We returned repeatedly to an observation made by one of the committee’s members regarding the reasonableness of the goal. John Kleiner, professor of English, had said, “Ultimately, a reasonable response to a problem involves a recognition of the scale of that problem, a recognition of how serious, of how threatening, that problem is.” 

In other words, we needed to scale our notion of setting reasonable goals to the global proportions of the climate change challenge. We couldn’t just measure our efforts against narrow gauges of financial and technical feasibility. 

That realization led us to look at what other institutions were doing. We found many of the leading institutions and businesses have adopted 1990 as their benchmark year for emissions levels; some adjust their goals based on student population growth. The most aggressive goals cite carbon neutrality as their target.

At Williams, we ultimately chose a target similar to the one adopted by Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, and by the New England Governors/Eastern Canadian Premiers—a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This goal is similar in magnitude to the Kyoto Protocol.

For a list of campuses that have made the commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, access the online resources provided by the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education at www.aashe.org/resources/gw_commitments.php.

As we began to better understand the college’s energy use, we met individually with members of the senior staff and with interested groups on campus to share what we were learning, build support, and get reactions. Having these conversations during the early stages of this work, before our committee had come to its final conclusions, enabled us to develop a communal understanding of environmental issues on campus, incorporate ideas and concerns from many stakeholders into our suggestions for future action, and build support for change.

Committee members encouraged administrators and campus personnel to talk to one another and to their peers about sustainability. For example, we organized a visit to Middlebury College in Vermont, a campus that has set an example of environmental stewardship. That trip enabled several senior staff and key employees to talk with their counterparts about what becoming greener would really entail. Committee participants addressed faculty and facilities staff meetings, met with the president’s administrative group, and talked with the IT office and other campus constituents.

As we presented our findings to various parts of the campus community, we learned that support for sustainability was becoming widespread. After almost every presentation, people would contact the committee directly for more information on how they could reduce energy consumption, either at home or at work.

We also found alumni ready and available to support us—financially, professionally, and morally—in our efforts to become greener. “We had been approached by alums who wanted to contribute to LEED certification of future buildings,” says Megan Morey, director of leadership giving for Williams. “But, the preliminary work of the Climate Action Committee convinced us that we needed to adopt a much broader institutional level of commitment to issues of climate change.” Morey adds, “All of our programs and endeavors from curriculum development to information technology to building maintenance, upgrades, and new construction would benefit from a change in our thinking on sustainability; and there are donors who would love to support us in that work.”

Inevitably, every conversation with stakeholders provided insights. Before the committee could recommend a goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we wanted to offer possible actions that Williams could take to accomplish that goal. In other words, the committee wanted to demonstrate the technical reasonableness of the proposed strategy.

To that end, we estimated the emissions impact of a range of actions: improving our building envelopes (insulation and windows); upgrading lighting; enhancing building control systems; installing energy-efficient boilers; and improving our central heating, ventilating, and cooling systems. We considered the effects of switching to cleaner fossil fuels, refraining from future physical growth, using biofuels, and purchasing carbon offsets and renewable energy credits. While our predictions were approximations, they provided an idea of expected reductions.

To make the data understandable by a wide variety of audiences, we developed a graphical representation of our potential strategies grouped into four high-level categories: limiting building growth, adopting conservation strategies, using cleaner fossil fuels on campus, and incorporating renewable energy sources (see figure, “Effects of Emissions Reduction Strategies”). The graph shows how the strategies, implemented together across a period of years, would enable Williams to reach an emissions reduction goal that fell well below what we had thought possible at the outset. Resources made available through a grant by the Henry Luce Foundation supported the college in analyzing its energy and emissions data as a basis for its ultimate sustainability strategy.

What Green Really Means

The data analyses revealed that switching to cleaner fuels and purchasing carbon offsets wouldn’t be enough to reach our goals. To sufficiently reduce emissions at Williams, the entire campus community would need to take three more actions. 

1. Change our behaviors. Many students had already been involved in energy-saving initiatives. They’d participated in light-bulb exchanges and “Do It In the Dark” competitions—month-long contests to measure which dorms reduced energy usage the most by turning off lights, computers, and other electrical devices. Likewise, the Climate Action Committee encouraged more conversations among faculty, facilities staff, and students on what else could be done and asked them to share their knowledge of what was taking place at other institutions.

We’ve seen a particular increase in interaction between our facilities staff and students. For instance, in addition to the light-bulb exchange projects and energy competitions, our mechanical maintenance supervisor and utilities manager frequently work with students in environmental planning courses and facilitate tours of our co-generation heating plant.

The heightened awareness of sustainability has spurred other actions across campus.

  • Custodians routinely turn off lights and televisions left on in vacant rooms.
  • Industry representatives have offered suggestions for decreasing energy consumption on campus—for example, by identifying areas in which to introduce more-efficient lighting strategies and to decrease temperature set points.
  • The academic computer science department and the IT office now share a server room. This move lowered energy consumption and eliminated the need to install additional cooling systems. 
  • The public affairs office has reduced the volume of publications it prints and consciously selects paper with higher recycled content. As an example, we cut the print run on our commencement issue newsletter in half (from 20,000 copies to 10,000).
  • In addition to participating in the student-run energy competitions, alumni relations and development staff have recruited a “Last One Out” crew to turn everything off before leaving for the night. In the first three weeks of the competition, the office used 17 percent less electricity. Student dorms have, on average, reduced electricity consumption by 4 percent, with some dorms achieving savings of 20 percent or more.
  • Dining staff, who have long focused on sustainability, have implemented solutions for reducing waste at large events. This year, for example, the commencement brunch used 2,500 fewer paper plates as new, reusable plates were put in service.
  • The admissions office now sends electronic flyers to campus constituents rather than individual paper flyers.

2. Articulate and support our values. Committee members believed it was important to develop a set of guiding principles that would formally and philosophically link sustainability to the college’s institutional priorities. We wanted to provide a framework that would inform  personal behaviors and institutional choices—from curricular development to operating practices to the way that we approach the design, construction, and engineering of capital construction and renovation projects.

Adopting these principles could help the college avoid the competition among programmatic goals that can minimize or eliminate sustainable aspects of projects. Such guidelines could also result in more careful consideration of longer-term operating savings when making capital investment decisions. We would be putting sustainability on the same footing as accessibility and diversity—two of Williams’ central institutional priorities. By doing so, constituents would view sustainability as a set of basic standards to be met—rather than an attractive feature that could be sacrificed as a consequence of inevitable budgetary pressures.

To support the emissions reductions targets and our larger commitment to sustainability, we also recommended that Williams hire a director of sustainability. The position called for developing and coordinating the implementation of a comprehensive strategic plan for emissions reductions and other actions related to sustainability. For now, our manager of special projects, within the office of the vice president for operations, has responsibility for devising and coordinating sustainability initiatives.

3. Inform the decision-making processes. No matter how much ground-level support we garnered, we also needed to address the financial aspects of our plan. The inevitable question—“How much is this going to cost?”—required realistic answers for us to have any hope of getting the college’s senior staff and board of trustees to make a commitment to sustainability.

Williams’s budget director assisted the Climate Action Committee in developing a financial model that projected utility costs, salaries, and energy savings of projects during the next 13 years (to 2020). We developed several financial scenarios that modeled the effects of utility prices as they increased at various rates.

We also adjusted by an inflationary factor the capital costs of infrastructure improvements and the operating costs of salary and benefits associated with hiring a sustainability director. That calculation enabled us to determine the net percent of value of our proposed strategy. (This model included only the salary costs associated with hiring a director of sustainability, the only personnel increase recommended.)

We were able to demonstrate the sensitivity of our financial projections to various rates of increase in fuel prices: The faster that rates increase, the sooner the conservation projects show a positive return. While our proposal called for a significant bump in operating costs due to a switch to cleaner fuels, the conservation projects limited our long-term financial exposure.  

Assumptions and Investments

The question of affordability and reasonableness is tricky and subjective; personal values, choices among competing priorities, and limited resources all play a part. To support our argument of affordability, we included data demonstrating that our current utility costs were low in comparison to those of peer institutions.

Several years ago, we installed a co-generation heating plant. This enables Williams to produce about 20 percent of its electricity as a byproduct of our steam heat, thereby significantly lowering the net cost of our electricity purchases. In fact, our utility prices per mmBTU (unit of energy) are lower than those of many of our peer institutions. Therefore, it seemed reasonable that we invest some of these savings in reducing our carbon footprint.

In formulating the 13-year financial plan, we made assumptions about the timing of the rollout plan for capital improvements. We anticipated that these improvements would be implemented during the first several years, giving us the opportunity to evaluate their effectiveness within the time frame of our commitment and to adjust the plan accordingly.

The early years’ investments included upgrading and expanding our measurement systems for electricity and steam. Evaluating the effectiveness of physical changes to our buildings and technology would provide us with valuable feedback as we renovated and improved our buildings.

While we currently monitor on a monthly basis electricity consumption by individual building, the upgrades would provide real-time data in digital format. We can use that data to provide feedback, via the Web, to the building occupants so they always know how well their efforts to reduce electricity consumption are succeeding. 

Much work remains to fine-tune our assumptions and identify specific improvement projects. Still, this model enabled us to present the financialreasonableness of our plan and begin incorporating sustainability into the college’s long-range financial plans.

Certainly, every institution will have its own definition of reasonableness. The word has philosophical, ethical, and financial aspects. At Williams, for instance, our understanding of what is reasonable depends upon understanding the causes and effects of global warming, perceiving how our actions and decisions influence our ability to affect change at a global level, and determining our financial ability to make those changes.  

“Even though some of the planned sustainability measures will result in a financial payback,” notes Thomas Dwyer, Williams’s budget director, “this institutional priority will require a multimillion dollar investment over the next 13 years. The college is prepared to make other financial trade-offs to ensure that we dedicate the necessary resources to our sustainability effort.”

Making the Case

Early in the committee’s work, we consulted senior staff and included them in discussions of costs and feasibility. Over time, senior staff became as dedicated as the committee itself to reducing emissions and shifting toward sustainability. The trustees, however, still needed to hear our story.

Our objective was to engage the board in a multifaceted conversation about sustainability—one that included an appropriately persuasive balance of science and economics and a shared sense of institutional principles. For the college to establish and achieve an aggressive, multidimensional target of the magnitude suggested (see sidebar, “The Right Number”), sustainability had to become an institutional priority. Only as a guiding principle could sustainability trigger significant levels of ongoing investment—as well as personal and institutional behavioral changes—well into the future.

>>> Resources
For more information on Williams’s sustainability program and reports,
visit www.williams.edu/resources/ sustainability/.

We assumed that, as leaders in business, health care, law, and education, our trustees were likely to have a solid understanding of the scientific, social, and moral issues involved. At the same time, they were apt to have varying degrees of knowledge about the areas we’d be discussing. Consequently, we adjusted the number and technical intensity of the slides in our presentation to strike a balance between the amount and density of information provided.

We prepared a packet of information for the trustees to read in advance. It included several articles from a survey of climate change (published in The Economist, September 9, 2006).

On January 19, 2007, the morning of the plenary discussion, The New York Times reported on the formation of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and the strong stance the partnership was taking on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Sharing this front-page story about an aggressive, environmentally sound initiative by a consortium of companies—including Duke Energy, General Electric, Caterpillar, BP Amoco, PG&E, and DuPont—certainly infused additional momentum into our narrative.

The scientific and economic arguments, no matter how compelling, still needed a well-articulated foundation. We had to answer basic questions—such as why Williams should consider making sustainability an institutional priority and why reducing our greenhouse gas emissions was worth such a large ongoing investment of human and capital resources. Once the board agreed with the fundamental principles and practices of sustainability, we presented our aggressive goals for emissions reduction.

Much of the ensuing discussion focused on questions of implementation: Would Williams adopt LEED certification for buildings or develop its own standards? How will the market for renewable energy certificates and carbon trading unfold in the future? Would expanding our co-generation capabilities be part of our implementation strategy? 

The next day, the board unanimously approved a resolution to make sustainability an institutional priority for Williams College and to adopt the recommended targets, which represent a 54 percent reduction in our carbon emissions by 2020. We trust that this will provide us with the necessary momentum and ongoing resources to hit that target.

For Years to Come

Since approving the resolution in January, the trustees have regularly contacted us with ideas and practices to consider implementing on campus. They’ve also asked for more information on how they might apply green principles to their own businesses. Expectations are running high, and staff feel fortunate to have such engaged and energized leadership with whom to share this vision.

>>> Conversation Starter
What sustainability practices has your institution discussed or implemented? E-mail carole.schweitzer@nacubo.org.

In addition to demonstrating that our goals were financially, technically, and operationally feasible, our business case emphasized that Williams College has a responsibility to teach the leaders of the future. Therefore, incorporating the principles of sustainability into the curriculum and demonstrating practical application on our campus are essential and necessary for future generations.

While reducing our carbon footprint is an important goal for the college, our “leadership footprint”—the scope of Williams’s global influence—is substantially larger. When we educate our students, faculty, and staff in the theory and practice of sustainable living, we’re influencing the many parts of the world that our community touches.

What started as a petition circulated by a group of students has become an institutional mission. Williams has made it a priority to educate people on how to fully incorporate the principles of sustainability into the fabric of life on campus and that of the wider world. 

STEPHEN P. KLASS is vice president for operations and STEPHANIE BOYD is manager of special projects, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts.