A Legacy of Sustainability Continues
The University of Massachusetts Amherst was founded in 1863 as an agricultural college, so environmental consciousness is part of our DNA. Long at the leading edge of sustainability development, education, and research, UMass Amherst has strived to be a responsible steward of the environment, the planet, and its limited resources.
In the 21st century, efforts were amplified to educate students, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the world about the greatest threat of our time—the climate crisis. On Earth Day 2022, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy launched UMass Carbon Zero, an ambitious campaign that sets a course toward reaching net-zero carbon emissions at UMass Amherst by the year 2032.
After establishing its first Climate Action Plan in 2007, UMass Amherst quickly became a sustainability leader, receiving numerous awards and consistently achieving a Gold STARS ranking from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Still, as the Commonwealth's flagship campus occupying 1,450 acres, UMass Amherst operates—in many aspects—like a small city. Due to its size, the campus is responsible for 20 percent of greenhouse gases coming from Massachusetts state-owned buildings.
Both university administration and the student body—keenly aware of the intensifying climate crisis and the campus's operational footprint—felt increasing urgency to take further action that would reduce UMass Amherst's carbon emissions and eliminate our sprawling campus's reliance on fossil fuels.
UMass Students Advocate for Action Against Climate Change
In a recent interview with Paperbark, the interdisciplinary science and art journal that is a collaboration between the College of Humanities and Fine Arts and the School of Earth and Sustainability, Subbaswamy traces his interest in sustainability back to when he began teaching physics in the 1970s. "Because this was during the Carter era, all the attention was on running out of fossil fuel, on the price of gasoline... and predictions of when we would run out of petroleum and so on. I was teaching a class called 'Physics of Energy' in which we talked at length about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming."
Despite his long-standing attention to these issues, the chancellor is reticent to take credit for UMass Carbon Zero. "This is not my initiative," he says. "Faculty, staff, students, local legislators, local community, they're all committed to making it happen."
In fact, student activists and groups like the Sunrise Movement (co-founded by UMass alumna Varshini Prakash '15) pushed the administration to take action to fight climate change and divest from fossil fuels. "The chancellor has always been very open to input from students," recalls Steven Goodwin, former deputy chancellor, chief planning officer, and dean of the College of Natural Sciences, now retired. "One of the things that impressed him, in this case, was that concerns about the campus’s carbon footprint were coming from so many different student quarters. As we moved forward it was the chancellor who was most adamant that students had to be involved in every step of the process," recalls Goodwin.
In 2016, UMass Amherst became the first major public university to divest from fossil fuels. Though important, Subbaswamy says he didn't see divestment as a "high-impact solution." Instead, he thought the focus should be "to actually stop burning fossil fuels." This was the impetus for UMass Carbon Zero.
When asked about UMass Carbon Zero's ambitious timeline, Subbaswamy attributes that to students as well, pointing out that they wanted to know why more couldn't be done sooner: "students keep asking the right questions, such as 'Why 2050? Why not 2032?'" The chancellor acknowledged the value of their queries, and as a scientist, knew that a serious study was necessary to answer them.
Teaming Up to Fight Climate Crisis
"The campus has long had a strong interest in sustainability. Over more than 20 years there had been a plethora of efforts to reduce water and energy use, to reduce waste, and to source food more locally," explains Goodwin. "One challenge was that these efforts lacked coordination." This, says Goodwin, in combination with the students' passion, prompted Subbaswamy to create the Chancellor’s Sustainability Advisory Committee (CSAC), a body comprised of students, staff, and faculty directly involved in operations, teaching and learning, and research and therefore in a position to make things happen.
In 2018, Subbaswamy and the CSAC announced the formation of the Carbon Mitigation Task Force and charged it with finding out if, how, and how quickly UMass Amherst could achieve 100 percent reliance on renewable energy sources for heating, cooling, and electricity. After forming a team composed of engineers and other experts and collecting input from hundreds of staff, faculty, and students, the task force performed a rigorous assessment of the work needed to reach carbon neutrality. They, with the help of a consultant, concluded that reaching carbon zero is indeed technologically achievable and outlined a path to reach carbon neutrality many years ahead of the 2050 target set by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to decarbonize statewide energy systems.
Campus Sustainability Manger Ezra Small and Capital Projects Manager Ted Mendoza, members of the chancellor's Carbon Mitigation Taskforce, presented the UMass Amherst plan to decarbonize campus operations at the 2022 CampusEnergy conference shortly after Carbon Zero was launched.
Eliminating Steam and the Burning of Fossil Fuels by Implementing Geothermal Technology
An essential aspect of UMass Carbon Zero took a notable step forward in fall 2022 and winter 2023 as geothermal wells were dug to perform capacity tests around campus. Ted Mendoza, who heads design and construction management for Carbon Zero, explains that the study conducted by the Carbon Mitigation Task Force revealed that by eliminating steam (the current source of heat for the campus) and implementing geothermal technology, "we could take care of around 65 to 70 percent of our greenhouse gas footprint."
Preparing Campus Infrastructure
The geothermal test wells are a step in the direction of converting campus facilities from steam heat. New building and major renovation projects at UMass Amherst are now designed to be carbon-zero-ready. According to Subbaswamy, three carbon-zero building projects have been completed on campus: the new police station; Crotty Hall, home of the economics department; and a geothermal conversion of the International Programs Office. Upcoming construction on the new computer science and engineering buildings will also be carbon zero.
Transforming the rest of the campus is an investment in the future that means big numbers. "Getting to carbon zero will require a lot of upfront expenditure," explains Subbaswamy. UMass Carbon Zero's feasibility study quantified the vast advantages of revolutionizing the campus energy system, despite the hefty price tag. Seventy percent of the energy consumed by our campus is used to heat buildings with steam. A new energy system would require 65 percent less energy, lowering operational expenses by about 20 percent, even while accounting for projected campus growth.
UMass Carbon Zero is not only an ambitious institutional undertaking, it's an educational opportunity for students learning about business, city planning, civil engineering, community organizing, and everything in between. "With a complex campus like this, where buildings range from 100 years old to modern buildings we're currently building, it's a great opportunity as a living laboratory—the term that we use in this context—to learn all that there is to learn about what would it take to go to carbon zero," explains Subbaswamy.
Faculty and staff across campus are working with UMass Carbon Zero to provide high-impact learning, research, and engagement opportunities to students. In a future that promises increased jobs in renewable energy sectors, these experiences could prove invaluable. In Scott Auerbach's iCons 2: Communication in the Integrated Sciences course, students investigated potential solutions on the path toward carbon neutrality and presented them to the task force, who considered them when completing their feasibility study. Auerbach, professor of chemistry and executive director of the Integrated Concentration in STEM (known as the UMass iCons Program) says, "Students unanimously reported that working towards net-zero carbon emissions for their own campus, and finally reporting their results to the Carbon Mitigation Task Force and Chancellor Subbaswamy were defining events in their college careers."
Carbon Literacy Project
Further empowering students to succeed in a changing world, UMass Amherst is the first institution in the U.S. to implement the Carbon Literacy Project, which has been tailored to dovetail with UMass Carbon Zero milestones. Since spring 2022, certified undergraduate students design and facilitate training sessions for their peers. Participants in the Carbon Literacy Project—created by Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK to empower individuals around complex environmental and social issues—gain an understanding of the basic science behind the climate crisis, the environmental impact of different sectors such as food and farming, the intersection of the environment and social justice, climate calculator and mitigation tools, high impact solutions, strategies for communicating or teaching climate literacy, corporate responsibility, and ways to take action.
A Forward-Looking, Far-Reaching Mission
As an established leader in research, entrepreneurship, and innovation, UMass Amherst is uniquely positioned to make a tangible difference in the local community and across the Commonwealth of Massachusuetts. Requiring large-scale infrastructural projects, UMass Carbon Zero will have real economic and environmental impacts, creating jobs and even revolutionizing local industry.
Mendoza describes UMass Carbon Zero as having the potential to be "transformational" in far-reaching ways as the initiative could likely create "ripple effects" in the utility, energy, and construction sectors. As the campus moves toward being 100 percent reliant on renewable energy, local demand for fossil fuels will decrease significantly. And with the experimental application of technologies that haven't yet been marketed, UMass Carbon Zero will serve as a working prototype, proving that a future powered by renewable energy is not only possible for entire institutions, towns, and cities but commercially viable. After all, the climate crisis extends far beyond the UMass Amherst campus. "This is something we all share as citizens and inhabitants of the planet," Subbaswamy reminds us.
This story was first published in April 2023.