Amherst as an Eco-Friendly Institution
Issue   |   Tue, 03/10/2015 - 23:35

Many of you have noticed the framed photos of students working on Book & Plow Farm adorning the walls of Valentine Hall, or maybe you attended last year’s Farm Fest at Book & Plow. Both are examples of recent endeavors aiming to raise the profile of Amherst’s green initiatives.

“It is part of the ethos of the operational department on campus to conserve and to ensure that we are minimizing our environmental footprint,” said Jim Brassord, Chief of Operations at the college. “We’ve had some really good successes, but they’ve been quiet, behind-the-scenes successes.”

Those successes have included innovative transportation strategies. For example, Amherst was one of the first colleges to use biofuels in all of its diesel equipment. More notably, Amherst was the first college to implement a Zipcar program, allowing students as young as 18 years old to rent cars from the convenience of O’Connell Lot. Each Zipcar takes 15 personally-owned vehicles off the road. Moreover, Zipcars decrease the growing need for parking space on campus by offering an alternative mode of transportation. At nearby Smith College in Northampton, Director of Media Relations Kristen Cole attested to the improvement that Zipcars have brought to the Valley.

“More and more students were bringing cars to the college,” she said. “Unfortunately, public transportation didn’t seem to have enough of an impact on the number of cars.” Zipcars allowed Smith — and Amherst — to put plans for additional parking spaces on hold.

From an energy production standpoint, Amherst created a cogeneration plant that will continue to reduce the college’s carbon footprint.

“The traditional way of deriving energy for a campus is to hook into a grid and to obtain all your electricity from a utility company, but that is an inherently inefficient process,” Brassord said. The reason: a byproduct of generating electricity is heat. When energy is produced remotely at a power plant, heat is lost into the atmosphere at the point of production. There are significant line-losses — or waste — that occur when electrons must be moved from the point at which the electricity is produced to the destination where the energy will be used. That process — the traditional way of powering a campus or home — is only 33 percent efficient.

A new approach to energy production has since developed, which hasn’t been widely accepted until recently. The approach employs the decentralization of energy production, in which energy is produced at the point of its use.

“Amherst’s cogeneration plant captures the waste and heat that comes off of the production [of energy], and puts it to use to provide heat and, ironically, cooling, to the place where it’s being generated,” Brassord said. The plant reduces the heat that’s wasted when electrons are sent down wires from distant, isolated energy plants. It also sports a state-of-the-art Emissions Control NOx Reduction Unit, which reduces the release of nitrous oxides, which cause ozone (smog) to form on hot summer days.

The total project, which cost $8.7 million, produces 60 percent of the campus’ electricity. It will take only seven years to recoup the funds invested by the college. The Green Amherst website features a virtual tour of the power plant and even showcases the Operations Department’s sense of humor: There is a photo of the plant’s winding pipes with the caption “This is not a screensaver.”

In terms of the direction in which sustainability at Amherst is headed, Brassord has plenty of good news. Last summer, the college established an Office of Sustainability with Laura Draucker as director. Draucker noted that last week’s letter from the Board of Trustees solidifies Amherst’s trajectory towards a carbon-neutral campus. By the time the letter was released, the college had already established a Climate Task Force, which is charged with determining both the dates associated with the carbon-neutrality timeline as well as how the college can achieve the accompanying initiatives.

The task force, which consists of hand-picked students, staff and faculty members, will meet in two weeks, and will tackle the issue of offsets in the process of working towards a carbon-neutral footprint. Draucker believes that it is critical to redefine what offsets mean for colleges and universities, in order to use offsets in a way that better supports the missions of educational institutions. The task force will work to make the college’s offsets a visible, interactive learning experience through initiatives such as retrofitting buildings. If the college were to “pay away the problem” by buying offsets, the concept of going green would be invisible and abstract to students; moreover, buying offsets could trap the college into picking a low-cost solution with a lower impact. Draucker and Brassord are working to ensure that Amherst’s carbon-reducing operations meet in the middle, like the cogeneration plant: low-cost but high-impact.

“Offsets are always going to be a part of the picture, but it’s doing it in a smart way that is critical,” Draucker said. “Even if we run 100 percent on renewable energy … we’re still buying food, and food has a carbon footprint. Chances are, we’re going to have to offset some of that.”

On the topic of food, as of 2013, Amherst Dining Services — with the help of Book & Plow Farm — is effectively incorporating more local produce into the student meal plan, thus reducing the carbon footprint associated with transporting food over long distances. The relationship between Dining Services and Book & Plow Farm is an example of the “farm to institution” model — another area in which Amherst is a trailblazer, as we are one of the first colleges to employ such a program. This past year, the farm hosted four summer interns and produced over 20,000 pounds of fresh produce. Next growing season, the farm plans to host eight interns, to increase its work-study program and to significantly increase its acreage in order to provide 100,000 pounds of local, organic produce to the college.

“We’ve had over 900 volunteers who wanted to come work on the farm — incredible,” said Pete McLean, co-founder of Book & Plow. “And that’s in our second year that that happened. For work study students … we’ve hosted almost 5,000 hours of work study, with students that would rather labor and toil and be out in the rain and in the cold and in the heat, than swipe a card at the gym.”

In his feature presentation in front of a filled Kirby Theater for Amherst Live last January, Farmer Pete mentioned some staggering statistics: Last year, the women’s lacrosse team voluntarily planted 2,250 cloves of garlic, laid down 50 bales of straw for mulching and picked 1,500 pounds of carrots and 300 pounds of parsnips, all in three hours. “That’s filling me with a lot of hope,” he said.

Andrew Kendall, a proponent of the farm to institution model, is the Executive Director of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation and recently came to Amherst to speak as a panelist on the topic of “Food Farm, and Health of the Community.” Kendall issued a call to action to the audience, which was a mix of students, faculty, and community members.

“I would end by turning the tables and posing a challenge to all of you to find a way to get involved in our food system. It’s complex, there are a million different entry points, and you’ll never figure out the right one, so just jump in and get working,” he said. “If this is something that interests you, find a way in. ... It’s such a simple concept, and … the benefits accrue to all of the actors within the institution, and the community surrounding it. So, the challenge is on.”
Interested in getting involved with green initiatives on campus? Brassord recommends the fish: He and the Operations Department have been working with the Aquaponics Club to construct an aquaponic food system on the south side of Valentine Dining Hall.

“We wanted to locate it in a way that would be most impactful, because if we did it in a remote site off-campus and students were unable to see it, a lot of the lessons and benefits would be lost,” he said.

To get more involved, contact Thais Correia ’16 and Pete Suechting ’15. In addition, Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer features an opportunity to work on Book & Plow Farm, and there is also a Book & Plow internship available through Amherst Select, for which the application due date is March 15. Farmer Ryan Karb at Many Hands Farm (manyhandsfarmcorps.com), just down the street from Amherst College, is also offering farm internships.

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