by Lindsey Olsen, PE, and Scott Waitkus, PE
originally published in High Profile: New England Development News

As universities across New England seek to reduce their carbon footprint and lead the way toward a more sustainable future, their path requires a multi-pronged and integrated approach. With careful planning and life-cycle analysis, strategic investments can pay big dividends and put institutions on the right course toward decarbonization. Building on experience in the Midwest for colleges that include Ball State (Indiana) and Miami University (Ohio), projects for Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges highlight how Salas O’Brien’s recent merger with BVH Integrated Services is enhancing our capacity for delivering advanced energy solutions to a variety of projects.

Amherst College plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. The guiding principles for the college’s transition from fossil fuels include curtailing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from campus utilities consumption; maximizing renewable electricity usage through virtual power purchase agreements; minimizing reliance on carbon offsets; implementing cost-effective and forward-looking technologies; and, replacing an aging, archaic infrastructure with a modern, efficient, and flexible system.

Salas O’Brien worked closely with Amherst College stakeholders to analyze multiple options. The final recommendation for the Decarbonization Master Plan was optimized for life-cycle financial performance, first-cost requirements, technical feasibility, and environmental performance, as measured by GHG mitigation.

The proposed plan includes two key principles. First, heat distribution: a steam distribution system was the solution of the last 100 years and can only be created by burning something. Converting to a hot water distribution system allows for multiple low-carbon ways to produce the heat, including geothermal/geo-exchange, solar thermal, sewage heat recovery, or other emerging technologies. Second, energy source: assuming colleges don’t want to adopt small-scale nuclear reactors, eliminating steam and electrifying the heating load is the best way to leverage the low-carbon energy market. This is done primarily through a heat pump (ground-source, air-source, or heat-recovery).

The Amherst College Decarbonization Plan includes:

  • Conversion from steam to a hot water district-heating network, including upgrading building HVAC systems to be compatible with hot water.
  • Expansion of the central chilled-water district system.
  • Ground-source heat pump system with a geo-exchange array.
  • Supplemental air-source heat pump.
  • Natural-gas water-heaters in the boiler plant for peak and backup heating.
  • Electrical system upgrades as necessary to support the thermal electrification.
  • Virtual Power Purchase of renewable electricity and carbon offsets for remaining GHG.

The proposed plan reduces GHG emissions by 85 percent compared to their 2010 baseline. The overall system design is flexible enough to allow for new and different methods of energy storage, reduction in energy use, and the generation of hot water with future technologies as they emerge.

Similar efforts that move campuses from their coal-burning origins to a zero-carbon future are underway at Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges; at Smith College the goal is to achieve decarbonization by 2030, while Mount Holyoke College is targeting 2037.

Salas O’Brien’s energy planning, geothermal, and district energy systems capabilities joined with BVH’s site engineering expertise gives colleges and universities all they need to transition to zero-carbon operations in the next 8 to 15 years—even sooner if that’s the goal.