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UMass Amherst plans to power campus with 100% renewable energy by 2032

Two workers install a tilt-up photovoltaic array on a roof.
Lucas Braun
Creative Commons
Two workers install a tilt-up photovoltaic array on a roof.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has unveiled a new Carbon Zero Program for its 1,500 acre campus. The goal is for all buildings to be using 100% renewable energy by 2032.

All facilities will go from being steam and electricity powered by fossil fuel, to running on hot water heating systems, paired with geothermal energy, according to UMass officials. The new systems will be powered by solar energy and the electrical grid.

It's a big idea by the university’s description.

On Friday UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said the university's pioneering work on such a complex, large-scale initiative will have ramifications far beyond the campus and that it can serve as a model for other large research universities.

"Given our size, we are responsible for approximately 20 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions of Massachusetts public facilities -- making us the single largest contributor among state entities," Subbaswamy said. "So, our success in this energy transition will be the commonwealth's success."

UMass Amherst engineering professor Erin Baker said the UMass plan is very ambitious — and very doable.

"[Most] people tend to kind of not understand how quickly technology can change, and so once you have especially lofty goals and incentives, we tend to improve the technology faster than we expected," Baker said.

It's urgent that buildings everywhere become carbon neutral, Baker said adding that what happens in the next ten years on campus will go beyond Amherst.

“We're interested in hot water storage because that's a really cost effective way to store energy,” Baker said. “Almost anybody can have a hot water tank in their basement.”

Baker is also the director of the Energy Transition Institute, a project that looks at creating equitable transitions to decarbonized energy systems in U.S. cities and towns.

"We have models [at UMass], and then we have more information that we can bring to communities," Bakers said. "If we're trying to get public housing to adopt this kind of heating and maybe joint hot water storage or something like that, we'll have more data to bring to them."

No energy solution is perfect, Baker said, but with what is known about climate change, she said doing nothing is not an option and people should get behind the energy source they think works best.

UMass Amherst’s new carbon zero initiative is estimated to cost $500 million.

UMass officials said they plan "to develop a diverse portfolio of university and external funding to pay for UMass Carbon Zero infrastructure improvements ... and teaching through federal, state, corporate and philanthropic sources, as well as energy- and decarbonization-related funding."

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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