College skimps on sustainability: Giving the College a D for not letting Vitamin D do its thing

In a letter to the Williams community on Jan. 24, 2007, President Schapiro declared sustainability to be a “guiding principle” for the College, going on to say, “we need to honor that principle in all that we do.” One very important component of this promise involves more stringent efforts to incorporate renewable power into new building projects. Yet while Williams continues to vocalize its commitment to such projects, it does not appear to be doing all it can to put its money where its mouth is.

Recently, a solar power project was considered for the new library’s offsite storage facility. The facility’s blueprint, which includes a long, south-facing roof unobscured by trees and other buildings, makes it an ideal candidate for solar photovoltaic cells that convert the sun’s light into clean, renewable energy. Moreover, because the facility will be climate-controlled to preserve the books on its shelves, it will have a 24-hour energy demand that makes it even better-suited for solar power. Yet with construction on the facility scheduled to begin soon, it was decided that roof mounted solar panels would not be employed. This is particularly disappointing given that Williams’ sustainability grade, which was previously an A-, dropped to a B+ this year after a decision was made to make the College’s investment portfolio more opaque.

The solar power project proposed for installation on the roof of the new offsite storage facility was tossed because the potential risks that roof mounted solar panels might cause to the books. However, it seems that the College never considered other means to mount the solar panels; these other means not threatening the structural integrity of the storage facility or the texts stored in it. It seems that the non-financial benefits such as greenhouse gas reduction and the educational value of solar panels were outweighed by the significant financial investment and concerns about the upkeep of the building envelope.

In the context of President Schapiro’s promise, a budgeting process that is based primarily on promoting good business sense is inappropriate. While it makes sense to have a clearly structured fiscal process when planning large building projects, the College needs to recognize that its current system does not account for the less quantifiable contributions sustainability projects make to both education and the environment. Williams has committed itself to environmental sustainability not simply because it makes economic sense to do so, but also because we believe in the worldwide goal of reversing climate change.

This is not to say that sustainability will come cheaply. According to Berkshire Photovoltaic Services, the company that installed the 7.2 kW solar array on Morley Science Center in 2004, larger photovoltaic systems generally cost $7.50- $10.00 per peak watt of installed power capacity. This means that if Williams were to commit to a 40kW project similar to the one recently installed at Yale, it would be looking at a bill of up to $400,000.

However, when viewed in the context of Williams’ $1.9 billion endowment, a $400,000 price tag no longer seems so unreasonable, particularly for a project that will help further the College’s sustainability goals. Indeed, in his January letter to the Williams community, President Schapiro said, “We will have to adjust to working within budgets, for individual projects and for the College as a whole, that include significant investments in sustainability.”

Moreover, with grant money from the state of Massachusetts, which is a national leader in terms of promoting renewable power development, the power savings generated by this sort of solar project would likely offset the high costs of installation after about 20 years. This is a very reasonable projection for solar power units.

Transitioning Williams to a more sustainable energy regime is not going to be easy, but it is necessary. As part of this goal, we believe the College should begin to incorporate renewable energy technologies into all new building projects, beginning by seeing to fruition the installations planned for the new Stetson-Sawyer project scheduled for completion in 2011, as well as the renovations slated for Weston Field.

As planned, the new library is a large building with ample roof space for solar panel installations. It is also a prominent building that receives a lot of public traffic, meaning that a solar power installation on its roof could serve as a powerful symbol for the College’s commitment to sustainability. Meanwhile, given its location, the project at Weston Field could effectively use both solar power and solar hot water systems.

The Williams administration is taking commendable steps towards sustainability with many behind-the-scenes programs for building systems and management, as well as by participating in the LEED certification program for building design. However, a sustainable campus must not only conserve energy, but also account for energy production. By supporting solar power projects, despite their high installation costs and long payoff periods, Williams will be making the sort of sacrifice that any genuine commitment to sustainability requires.

Ruth Aronoff ’09 is an anthropology and geosciences double major from Saint James, N.Y. Phil Carter ’08 is a Chinese and economics double major from Washington, D.C.