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When it comes to cutting emissions, Dartmouth looks to the ground

Eli Burakian
Dartmouth College, Courtesy
Dartmouth College has 13 active geothermal wells on campus.

Students at Dartmouth College may be hearing a little extra racket right now.

That’s because the school is drilling test wells to find more sources of geothermal energy to heat and cool buildings on campus.

The systems collect thermal energy from below the earth’s surface, then run it through heat pumps for air conditioning.

Dartmouth already uses geothermal energy to heat and cool two campus dorms.

And officials say drilling more wells will play a key role in helping the university transition to renewable energy. Which is important, because Dartmouth has pledged to slash 80% of its greenhouse emissions by 2050.

To learn more about the university’s geothermal efforts and the wider push to adopt sustainable energy, Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke with Frances Mize, who covers the climate and environment for Valley News. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Can you start by explaining why the university is drilling these test wells right now? What sort of information are they trying to collect with this work?

Frances Mize: Yeah, Dartmouth is just trying to better understand where on campus it can harness energy from below the earth's surface. So as you mentioned before, they already have a few wells powering some other buildings around campus. And they ran a similar test under the Green —the big Dartmouth Green in front of Baker-Berry Library — they found that land there is also useful for geothermal energy. So they're just sort of playing the field and seeing what works for them as they pursue energy transition.

Why does Dartmouth see this type of energy, geothermal energy, as potentially important tool to cut down on their use of fuel oils to heat and cool buildings on campus?

Visually, it's not so invasive; you can have a geothermal exchange system below a building or even below the Green and no one would really know the wiser. You can build right on top of it. So it's sort of a nonintrusive option in that sense.

And Dartmouth is sort of hard pressed to find cleaner energy options at the moment. As you said, they're looking to reduce their emissions by 80% by 2050. And they've gotten some pushback on that goal. Some people are saying that it is not ambitious enough. Most of Dartmouth peer schools have set 100% net zero energy goals by 2050, which is in line with what the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] suggests to avoid the worst effects of climate change. And so, Dartmouth with that 80% goal, many say is not acting ambitious enough. Which is important for an institution like Dartmouth, which claims leadership in areas of energy and climate research. So they're getting the hard press.

Zooming out a little bit, can you explain the university's goals to reduce emissions and their goals to transition to more sustainable energy?

Yes, based on a 2010 baseline number regarding Dartmouth's greenhouse gas emissions, they're hoping by 2025 to have reduced by 50%. Right now, they've reduced, based on the 2010 baseline, 27%. Darmtouth has two-and-a-half years to reduce further by 23%, when it's taken them 12 years to get 27%. So they're in a rush.

You mentioned that there's been criticism that Dartmouth isn't doing enough to cut down on carbon emissions and their own fossil fuel use. Why do some students and environmental groups say that the college is dragging its feet on this transition?

Back in 2017, there were these plans for Dartmouth to build a biomass plant, which got shut down after a lot of criticism from students and alumni. Dartmouth has many alumni that are loud and active voices in the climate sphere. And they just didn't think that the biomass plant, which requires cutting down forests to fuel the campus, was actually the most renewable option.

Dartmouth's foot dragging is probably just a testament, from what I've seen in my reporting, to how complex it is for an institution to decarbonize. There are a lot of different stakeholders and interest groups who want the Dartmouth endowment — which is massive, which is over $8 billion — to be used in certain ways for the energy transition. To have a seat at the table requires some shuffling of priorities. Which is scary, I think for a lot of people at an institutional level.

And you reported that Dartmouth's greenhouse gas emissions per student — they're the highest in the eight-school Ivy League. It sounds like school leaders have a lot of work to do?

I think so, from how I see it. And that that number is so high because Dartmouth burns number six fuel oil, which is one of the dirtiest of carbon fuel sources. And so the biomass plant, that idea was to sort of offer an alternative heating source. And obviously, that got shut down. But they're really getting pressured to move away from number six as quickly as they can. Some people are like, "Oh, we can just quickly transition to natural gas, which is a less harmful emitter than number six fuel oil." But it's no angels, as far as an energy source goes. You know, you're still emitting greenhouse gases by burning natural gas.

And so there's the sense, some people argue, "Oh, we don't want to adopt what we would call a bridge fuel on the way to total decarbonization, because it might just sort of let the college rest on its haunches. It sort of dims the fire below that the transition pressure." But the biomass plans, that was five or so years ago at this point that those got shot down. So a bridge might have been helpful between then and now.

Going back to the geothermal wells, what are the next steps for Dartmouth? Like how many working wells does the college want to drill going forward? And what is that timeframe?

I'm not sure, actually, I assume that the timeframe before 2025, considering that 50% reduction goal. And geothermal wells do seem to be a good option for Dartmouth, as they're already using a few. They're actually already using 13. So I imagine that this is something that they will really keep pursuing as an energy option. It doesn't require a massive overhaul of an existing energy source like shutting down the number six heating plant would. Any kind of quick fixes that that Dartmouth can get online would be helpful in this transition.

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