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Speeches & Media

Smith at Its Best

Historic geothermal initiative is one way the college is making good on its carbon neutrality pledge.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2023

In May 2022, the Smith College Board of Trustees approved a bold plan to convert the campus’s heating and cooling system from fossil fuels to an electrically powered geothermal system, enabling the college to become carbon neutral by 2030. This $210 million “once-in-a generation” initiative—the largest capital project in Smith’s history—goes beyond a single building or even a building complex. Rather, it touches nearly every building on campus. Most importantly, it fulfills our moral commitment to promoting environmental sustainability and carbon neutrality as we address one of today’s most complex, urgent problems: climate change.

The geothermal energy system will replace our current system, built in the 1940s and now significantly beyond its useful life. The current system heats campus buildings by burning natural gas to make steam, which is then distributed throughout campus. This approach is both outmoded and inefficient. Going forward, the campus will rely on electricity, largely from solar sources, to distribute geothermal heating and cooling to more than 100 buildings across campus, including student houses. Work on the geothermal energy project began in summer 2022, and the system will come online in phases over the next six years. Alums returning for Reunions will increasingly notice the new system’s benefits— perhaps most notably, the delivery of air conditioning to more campus spaces. This feature will not only enhance summer visitors’ comfort but also position Smith to increase year-round use of the campus for events and programs.

An investment of this magnitude was not made casually. It is the result of the work of many members of the Smith community—trustees, faculty, staff, and students—who examined how Smith, as an educational institution and residential college, could most effectively respond to the challenge of global climate change. Geothermal energy emerged as central to the group’s recommendations. Converting to geothermal energy will enable the college to reduce on-campus carbon emissions by 90%; the remainder of our carbon emissions will be eliminated through other efforts over time. Further, by making such an ambitious move, the college is helping the city of Northampton reach its own goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 (given that Smith is responsible for 7.3% of the city’s emissions).

The geothermal project represents just one of the ways we are addressing climate issues through our curriculum, co-curriculum, and operations. A full 28% of faculty hired over the past seven years have climate change and environmental sustainability as a significant focus of their research and teaching. The Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability (CEEDS) provides opportunities for students to apply concepts learned in the classroom in innovative ways to promote the college’s commitment to sustainability. A 2018 collaboration we led with four other higher education partners resulted in the largest solar energy system in New England; we now source 30% of our electricity from its Farmington, Maine, location. By focusing on initiatives in several areas—like locally sourced food, new courses in sustainability, and LEED award-winning buildings—Smith is making good on its commitment.

Converting the campus we love to one that relies on sustainable energy is an ambitious effort of which I am extremely proud. Our beautiful, historic campus will be carbon neutral in just seven years—and we will achieve that goal with a minimum use of carbon offsets, an approach that doesn’t solve emission problems at their origin but pushes them to other locations. This energy conversion will have implications beyond Smith. It will demonstrate for higher education—and for the communities of which colleges and universities are a part—what is possible when a campus commits its resources toward its vision and values. For our students, it will model how acting on your values can change the world. As one trustee put it, “This project is Smith at its best.”