Community Forum Highlights E2040 Energy Plan and Sustainability Efforts at Wellesley

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“From the beginning around a dimly lit table in Tower dining hall, to this panel today, divestment and sustainability at Wellesley have been processes of commitment and collaboration,” said Kelsey Dunn ’21 during a forum held April 7 to give updates on Wellesley’s sustainability efforts this spring and share an outline of the College’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality.

“We’re approaching a historic moment, one where students, faculty, and staff are coming together to take a step forward toward change as a community for Wellesley, for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the people we love, and the places we call home,” Dunn continued.

E2040 and the College’s plan for carbon neutrality

Laura Daignault Gates ’72, trustee and chair of the E2040 task force, kicked off “A Community Update on Wellesley’s Response to Climate Change” by highlighting the task force’s charge and its work to reduce the College’s carbon footprint. “We recognized that we would not be able to meet our goal of being a carbon-neutral campus unless we made a fundamental change to our approach to heating and cooling,” Gates said. “This led us to E2040.”

E2040 has developed a master energy plan that is a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort to achieve carbon neutrality for the College through investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heating and cooling systems, energy efficiency, renewables, and potential geothermal wells. (Please note: the recommendations from E2040 are available to view by students, faculty, and staff only at this time.)

An integral part of this plan is reenvisioning Wellesley’s power plant. The College’s heating infrastructure and emissions from the plant’s natural gas usage present a tremendous challenge, said Dave Chakraborty, assistant vice president of facilities management and planning and a member of the Sustainability Committee and E2040 (both groups include faculty, staff, and students). Reducing dependence on natural gas will require upgrades to the infrastructure of every residence hall and academic building. Building renovation costs are estimated at $500 million, and it will cost another approximately $200 million to convert the heating delivery system over the next 20 years.

Earlier investments in sustainability are already having an impact. The College previously committed $32 million to campus-wide energy projects; as a result, Wellesley is on track to meet its 2026 goal of decreasing emissions by 37 percent by 2022, four years early.

Chakraborty said he is often asked why the College is not switching to renewable electricity more quickly. His answer: “Our calculations show that every dollar that we spend toward eliminating natural gas has a better return than investing the same dollar in renewable electricity.”

Student-led changes for sustainability

Dunn, Miray Omurtak ’21, and Katie Christoph ’21 (who is a student-appointed representative on the Sustainability Committee) spoke next at the event, outlining proposals for carbon-cutting actions they and their fellow students developed in Econ/ES 199: Fossil Fuel Divestment: Student Action at Wellesley.

Student activism and engagement in combating climate change—particularly regarding eliminating fossil fuel investments from the endowment led by Renew Wellesley, a student-organized campaign—have been a key part of the College’s sustainability journey. After giving a presentation to the board’s Subcommittee on Investment Responsibility (SIR) at its February 2020 meeting, students took up the charge of developing collective measures for the student body that would help offset the financial cost of endowment action and reduce energy usage across campus. Combined with recommendations from faculty and staff, these actions would reflect the community’s mutual effort to take steps toward a more sustainable future.

In the fall of 2020, Norma Wilentz Hess Professor of Economics Casey Rothschild’s students in Econ/ES 199 analyzed costs and emissions related to aspects of life on campus. They submitted a report to the board and their fellow students with recommendations that focused on four areas: buses, red meat consumption, student mini-fridge use, and parking. College Government voted to include these recommendations in a ballot question for the student body; they passed in a historic vote in March.

“This work was engaging and illuminating, and we saw peers’ willingness to engage with us on this issue and provide constructive feedback, especially when it came to equity concerns,” said Omurtak. “Members of senior leadership have committed themselves to addressing equity concerns that may arise out of these proposals, and we, and students, are also committed to making sure these concerns are not only heard but are thoroughly addressed.”

Recommendations for faculty and staff

“One of the things that makes sustainability such a challenging concept is the landscape of stakeholders is vast,” said Dan Brabander, Frost Professor in Environmental Science, professor of geophysics, and chair of the Sustainability Committee.

Brabander, along with committee members Pinar Keskin, associate professor of economics, and Olivia Shehan, sustainability coordinator, presented the committee’s recommendations for collective and individual actions faculty and staff can take in areas such as catering, transportation, energy, and infrastructure.

Shehan said the College’s strategic planning efforts and commitment to equity inspired the Sustainability Committee to “create a portfolio of projects that would not only cover a variety of topics, but also have different implementation methods to better fit the needs of our community.” Shehan described a number of opt-in measures that faculty and staff could implement in the short term—such as a catering policy where plant-based food is the default, but individuals can still request options containing meat—and intermediate and longer-term actions as well.

The committee has released prerecorded webinars for faculty and for staff about their plan; both will provide the opportunity to submit anonymous feedback via survey questions. The committee will also hold virtual town halls April 9 and April 14 to discuss their plan ahead of meetings of Administrative Council on April 16 and Academic Council on April 21, where faculty will vote on the committee’s recommendations.

Next steps and endowment action

The College stopped making investments in oil and gas companies through private equity about four years ago, said Debby Kuenstner, chief investment officer. “But to make the formal statement and say, ‘We’re not going to do it, we’re going to stop doing it on a permanent basis,’ required more process, and more thinking,” she said. “It’s a commitment that’s important, and that the board has to make, not that the investment team makes.”

Kuenstner said she believes that given the actions students, faculty, and staff have already taken, the board will be favorably inclined to formally change the College’s investment policy when they convene later this month to vote on the E2040 plan.

A collective sense of responsibility and urgency surrounding Wellesley’s response to climate change has motivated all these efforts. “I hope the College’s action will inspire many of us to greater advocacy on a broader scale,” Gates said at the beginning of the event. “We are in a climate emergency, and it has important social justice implications. And I hope that each of us will consider the actions we can take to reduce energy consumption and spread the word.”

(A feedback form is available for community members who have questions or comments about the master energy plan E2040 helped develop.)