Sarah Willie-LeBreton on her appointment as Smith College's 12th president, the global impact of Smith alums, what brings her joy, and the power of the liberal arts.
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Smith to Break Ground on Project That Will Enable College to Achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2030
Bold new geothermal campus energy project will lower carbon emissions by 90 percent
Smith College will break ground in May on a bold geothermal campus energy project that will lower the college’s carbon emissions by 90 percent, allowing Smith to become carbon neutral by 2030.
The project will replace the college’s aging, fossil-fuel-fired steam heating system with a state-of-the-art, electrically powered geothermal system. This will make Smith one of only a handful of schools in the nation—and likely the first in New England—to achieve net-zero carbon emissions through the near elimination of on-campus fossil fuel combustion rather than through other means, such as carbon offsets or biofuel conversion.
The project is the culmination of years of work by students, staff, faculty and trustees, including those who served on the college’s Study Group on Climate Change and District Energy Working Group. Smith first began using geothermal energy in 2019, when the college undertook a pilot project that involved heating and cooling the college’s field house.
“It is a moral imperative for Smith College to do its part in mitigating the devastating effects of climate change on our planet. As such, I am enormously proud of the decision by the Smith College Board of Trustees to approve the Geothermal Campus Energy Project,” said President Kathleen McCartney. “This project will enable the college to reach our goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. I am exceedingly grateful to those who served on the District Energy Working Group for their hard work, which resulted in the analyses that informed this historic decision.”
Smith will use a geothermal heat-exchange system powered by renewable electricity to replace the combustion of fossil fuels for heating. This technology harnesses the stable temperature in the earth below the frost line and transfers it from the ground to an energy plant and then on to individual buildings for heating and cooling.
“Smith takes seriously issues related to sustainability and human-caused climate change,” noted Alison Overseth ’80, chair of Smith’s board of trustees. “The approval of the geothermal campus energy project reflects the board’s belief that climate change is an urgent, complex problem—one that demands ambitious, multifaceted plans of action from individuals and institutions. This project is an integral part of Smith’s solution to this critical issue.”
In addition to dramatically reducing the college’s carbon emissions, the project will reduce water consumption by more than 10%, improve local air quality, add cooling to enhance building comfort and lower the college’s operating costs.
“This system will single-handedly reduce Smith’s carbon footprint by an astounding 90%,” said Dano Weisbord, Smith’s associate vice president for campus planning and sustainably. “I’m so proud that our team developed a single solution that lowers carbon, lowers cost and improves the campus experience. Electrification will be a real win for Smith.”
Construction of Smith’s geothermal system will begin this summer and be implemented in three phases over the next six years. The total project cost is $210 million, to be funded largely through proceeds from recent debt issuances. The project will produce operating cost savings when the system is fully online.
Founded in 1871, Smith College opened in 1875 with 14 students. Today, it is one of the largest women’s liberal arts colleges in the United States, educating women of promise for lives of distinction and purpose. Smith enrolls 2,600 students from nearly every state and more than 70 other countries to cultivate leaders able to address the complex, urgent problems of today. As a global community of scholars, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, activists and humanitarians, Smith is pushing the world forward. More information at smith.edu.
About Sustainability at Smith
Smith has long been a leader in issues related to sustainability. The college announced its divestment from fossil fuels in 2018, and 30% of campus electricity comes from an innovative solar collaboration that went online in Maine in 2021. In recent years, the college built one of the world’s first fully certified “living buildings” at MacLeish Field Station and has significantly exceeded the 20% goal associated with the Real Food Challenge. The college’s new Neilson Library was recently awarded LEED Gold Status, a prestigious honor that recognizes the incorporation of exacting standards around energy, lighting, water and materials.
About Our Partners
Design and construction are being undertaken in partnership with Salas O’Brien, the largest geothermal planning and engineering design practice in North America, and with construction management firm BOND Building, a fifth-generation construction and civil and utility general contracting firm with specific expertise in district energy.