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Heat pumps and underground holes: Dartmouth announces $500 million investment in decarbonization

Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Dan Tuohy photo
Dan Tuohy
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Dan Tuohy photo

Dartmouth College announced this week it would invest half a billion dollars on climate mitigation efforts, including transitioning the school’s heating system off of fossil fuels.

Sian Leah Beilock, Dartmouth’s president, said in a statement that the push to transition energy sources on campus would be the largest operational change in the institution’s history.

Among other projects, Dartmouth plans to install high-capacity heat pumps and a geoexchange system, which uses water in deep underground holes like a battery for heating and cooling systems. Those systems are increasingly popular ways for college campuses to heat and cool their buildings without burning fossil fuels.

The college has proposed new targets for its emissions reductions: 60% reduced by 2030, and a 100% reduction by 2050.

As part of the effort, the school is starting a climate collaborative, which is meant to involve students and professors in the process of transitioning the campus’s energy system.

“It's about bringing together both our operational side and our academic side,” said Josh Keniston, senior vice president for capital planning and campus operations. “As an example, if we are drilling boreholes for a geoexchange system – are there opportunities to let our faculty and students collect soil samples?”

Decarbonizing a college campus is a different project than decarbonizing a home or an apartment building. Dartmouth runs on its own district heating system, which uses steam to heat buildings and is powered by burning oil.

A plan to replace that oil with a new biomass plant, which would have burned wood chips, was called offin 2020 after months of local pushback. But the University went forward with their efforts to replace steam heating with hot water heating, which is more efficient.

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Keniston said when the college proposed the biomass plant, they were hoping to swap out oil with something that could totally replace it. But after engaging with community members and researchers, they understood that it wouldn’t help with carbon neutrality on a fast timeline. Then, the university began looking for a wider range of solutions.

“We suspect that as we move forward, there will be new

technologies that come on board and that we may want to adopt those,” he said. “The geoexchange boreholes and heat pumps are our first move. But the hot water distribution system that we're designing has flexibility so that as there are more efficient or new things that we can adopt them.”

Keniston says the upfront costs of decarbonizing – $500 million for the whole effort – looks high. But the college is expecting to save on energy costs in the long term. And the campus’s heating system was due for a big upgrade.

“There are parts of our system that are over 100 years old,” he said. “We're not just decarbonizing. We're also having to address some significant deferred maintenance.”

Dartmouth built most of the money that will go towards climate investments into the institution’s budget, Keniston said, but the school is also hoping philanthropists will pitch in.

At the national scale, decarbonization has major financial benefits, too, said Steve Clemmer with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A study he worked on showed decarbonizing could create more than $800 billion in public health benefits and $1.3 trillion in avoided climate damages by 2050, along with reducing household energy costs.

Clemmer said it’s important for institutions like universities to participate in decarbonization and make these kinds of investments.

“Everybody needs to be part of this,” he said. “Even increasing temperatures to two degrees also entails some pretty significant climate impacts that are devastating and costly to society,” he said.

For Dartmouth student Kate Yeo, who co-founded Fossil Free Dartmouth, the announcement came as an exciting step.

“If we call ourselves the Big Green, then we should live up to that. And I think investing in the infrastructure that can get us to net zero is incredibly important,” she said. “It’s definitely come from, you know, like a long legacy of activism on campus, both from students and professors.”

But, Yeo said, she’s hoping that the school reconsiders how it approaches other policies, like taking donations from fossil fuel companies for research funding.

“I also hope that we can re-look at our relationship with fossil fuels as an institution,” she said.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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