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On Earth Day, UMass Amherst unveils major renewable energy overhaul

The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The University of Massachusetts Amherst officials on Friday rolled out a big Earth Day pledge, unveiling a plan to reach 100 percent renewable power within about a decade.

“Change begins at home,” the university’s chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, said in an interview.

The university system’s 1,500-acre flagship campus — which is responsible for 20 percent of emissions from state government-owned buildings, according to Subbaswamy — has its own power plant, which runs mostly on gas and currently supplies most of the school’s heat and electricity.

UMass Amherst plans to retire that plant in the coming years and convert the campus’s heating infrastructure to geothermal power. The campus will also use heat pumps, as well as heat recovery chillers which provide both heating and cooling.

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For electricity, the school will use a combination of renewable power purchased from the grid and battery-stored solar energy generated on campus. It will also upgrade and renovate buildings to ensure they are efficient.

The plan comes as universities across the Commonwealth are increasingly grappling with their contributions to the climate crisis. In 2018, Harvard committed to removing fossil fuels from its grid. In 2019, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Mount Holyoke both pledged to transition to all-renewable power, and last year, Boston University followed suit.

The road map for UMass Amherst’s transition has been in the works since late 2018. It’s based on the work of hundreds of staff and faculty, energy consultants, and students, university officials said.

The university has already created one geothermal well on campus and will soon drill two more. Project managers hope to learn more about how much capacity for geothermal energy storage and extraction exists in different areas underground, and where to site more wells.

“We’re calling this our proof-of-concept project,” said Ted Mendoza, capital projects manager of design and construction management at the university.

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The next step will be using that geothermal capacity to heat 40 campus buildings that were built at different points in the school’s 162-year lifespan. Mendoza hopes this will help the university learn how best to convert heating systems in different kinds of buildings.

The ambitious undertaking comes with a large price tag — $500 million, according to preliminary estimates. Campus spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said the university plans to obtain funding from the state and federal government, as well as from philanthropists. There are no plans to raise tuition to cover the costs, he said.

UMass Amherst has already taken some steps to cut its energy emissions, installing solar panels around campus and, in 2017, obtaining funding to build a large battery storage system. Three of its nearly 300 buildings also already run on geothermal energy.

The work of scholars on campus helped move the campus toward its decarbonization plan, said Subbaswamy.

“Our researchers in civil and environmental engineering, in environmental studies, and in geological studies have been again at the forefront of calling attention to both the rate at which climate is changing [and] the consequences of it,” he said.

Students’ concern about the climate crisis was also a driving force, Subbaswamy said. In early conversations about the plan, he said, there was some discussion about aiming to complete the transition by 2050, but under pressure from students, university officials brought on consultants to determine how much more quickly the transition could happen. The final plan sets a goal of completion in “approximately 2032.”

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“The overall commitment to renewable energy by 2032 is one of the fastest timelines to phase out fossil fuels of any university in the United States,” said Caroline Sunuwar, a sophomore at UMass Amherst who worked on the plan and serves as 100 percent renewable energy campaign coordinator for the university chapter of MASSPIRG, an activist group that works on environmental issues, among others. She said student activists have been pressuring the administration to create a renewable energy plan since 2016.

Ben Hellerstein, state director at the advocacy group Environment Massachusetts, said he hopes to see the university commit to sourcing renewable power in a way that spurs the creation of more renewable projects, instead of just buying into what is already available or planned.

Still, he called the university’s new road map “bold.”

“Across Massachusetts, the energy used in our buildings is responsible for more than 40 percent of our global warming pollution,” he said. “The work underway at UMass to transition to clean, all-electric buildings could set a powerful example for other institutions and businesses to follow.”


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.