Administration commits to improving sustainability initiatives on campus
Wellesley College’s power plant, which in previous years provided the majority of the power used by the college, broke over the summer and needs to be replaced. While this development does not have any immediate, concerning ramifications, Wellesley will have to make a decision on the future of the plant by the end of this semester. The plant is a cogeneration plant, which means that it produces both electricity and heat for the college. It uses natural gas, and is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on campus and provides heat, electricity and air conditioning to Wellesley.
At this time, only the portion of the plant that generates electricity is not functional–the portion that generates heat still works. In years past, Wellesley College has purchased a portion of its electricity from the Wellesley Municipal Light Plant (WMLP), which is owned by the town of Wellesley, Massachusetts and provides electricity to the town and other customers, including both Wellesley and Babson Colleges. Now, however, Wellesley is purchasing all of its electricity from WMLP in lieu of the electricity that would usually be generated by the plant.
The cogeneration plant was built in 1993 and was put into use starting in 1994. When asked about why the plant stopped working, Dave Chakraborty, Assistant Vice President of Facilities Management and Planning, wrote, “The engines, and associated equipment, which produce the power, have reached their end of life and have become obsolete. The manufacturer has discontinued maintenance support and parts are no longer available to repair the engines.” He also added that, “For several years, the College has tried to repair the engines to keep them running. It has become increasingly difficult to find parts.”
Even though the plant has stopped producing electricity, the Administration did not inform students of this development in a school-wide email because the College’s power supply wasn’t affected. “The College did not notify faculty, staff or students as there has been no disruption of power supply to the College community, since we are procuring power from the town,” Mr. Chakraborty noted, also acknowledging that it is “unusual” for Wellesley College to purchase all of its energy from the town of Wellesley.
The decision about the plant has many implications for Wellesley’s future priorities about energy use and sustainability on campus. According to Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Jay Turner, “This is an important financial issue, in terms of the millions of dollars it’ll take to improve our existing power plant and the cost to operate it going forward.” Professor Turner also pointed to the importance of the power plant as a reliable source of power for the college, and said, “Historically, we’ve been able to support ourselves” when a power outage strikes the area. A 2015 report published by Wellesley students under the guidance of the Environmental Studies Program noted that one of the many advantages of having a cogeneration plant was “less dependency on the usage of a centralized energy network, which also reduces vulnerability to power outages and system failures.”
Furthermore, Wellesley must keep in mind how the decision about the power plant will contribute to existing sustainability initiatives on campus. “The decision we make in rebuilding the power plant has long-term implications for questions like how much renewable energy do we use, do we continue to burn natural gas, and how much do we reduce our carbon footprint?” Professor Turner added.
In response to the aging cogeneration plant and the desire to advance sustainability, the Board of Trustees formed the Energy Working Group, also known as Power4Women, in fall 2017. “The Power4Women group meets frequently and has long, in-depth conversations that consider the multiple facets to this issue,” said Anna Beyette ’21, a student appointed to Power4Women in Spring 2018. “This to me says that the committee is not making this decision lightly. In every meeting we discuss how we can make the most positive impact given the grey areas in this situation,” Beyette added.
The creation of the committee was also in response to the Renew Wellesley campaign from last semester, which was a student-led activist group that pushed for more sustainability initiatives on campus. While neither the working group nor the administration has directly indicated how the College will work to fix the power plant in this semester, Mr. Chakraborty wrote, “The Board of Trustees is aware of the issue, and is working actively with the senior leadership to develop solutions.”
Beyette was optimistic that the Power4Women group could also help to add student voices to the conversation, stating, “Regardless of the decisions that the administration and Board of Trustees makes, we should be working hard to change our own actions so that they too speak for sustainability. This task is not always easy, but our actions will speak loudly.”