A Look at Colby’s Sustainability Efforts

This article is part of a series on Colby’s sustainability.

This year, Colby was ranked number one in the Association for Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) 2019 Sustainable Campus Index. The College was also the fourth such institution to declare net zero carbon emissions. But how did Colby get to this place?

“The College has had a long commitment to sustainability, and this includes some strong faculty engagement, including a number of faculty who have since retired,” Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus said in an interview with the Echo.

Many of these faculty members helped create the Environmental Advisory Group (EAG), which Nyhus is currently a part of. It was founded in 2000 and is a group of administrators, faculty, and students who seek to advise the president and Colby community on environmental concerns. 

Since 2000, collaboration between administrators, faculty, and students has allowed work to be done in making Colby sustainable. Many senior honor theses have focused on this topic. A specific student that Nyhus notes for her work is Jamie O’Connell`08, although there were many students before and after her that played integral roles in making Colby go carbon neutral. 

O’Connell compiled a thesis called Carbon Neutrality at Colby College, where she laid the groundwork for greenhouse gas emissions accounting.  

“[She] looked at our carbon budget here at Colby so we could see how much carbon we actually use in our energy because until we could track that it was hard for us to identify how we could reduce it,” Nyhus said. 

Since Jamie’s work, the college has had many initiatives that has led to net zero emissions. One of the most significant of these initiatives was the switch to biomass, with the completion of the biomass plant in 2012, which is used instead of oil to create heat and hot water. Colby also uses sustainable energy.

 “About 16% of our electricity comes from the 5,300 solar panels up on Washington Street, about 10% of our electricity is co-generated from the steam that comes out of the biomass plant. We have buildings like Schair-Swenson-Watson which are geothermal heated and cooled, and we’ve done a lot on things like conservation to reduce the amount of energy we use,” Nyhus said. 

Another important part of the project is carbon offsetting, which other students have researched in their senior theses. Carbon offsetting is important because Colby still uses some carbon, especially through transportation. 

Colby has reached out to other schools, both for advice and to give advice.

“When the school was preparing to build its biomass boiler, it looked to see what Middlebury had done. We learned from their experiences so they had one biomass boiler so we put in two so there would be redundancy so if one was getting fixed, there were some issues with moisture if I recall with wood chips before they’re getting burned, and so our system was built to account for that,” Nyhus said.

The project to have net zero emissions has significantly benefited the school and the environment. 

“It’s been a win-win because we’ve reduced our emissions and we’ve saved money. We save significant money on switching to biomass from wood that’s sustainably harvest within 50 miles of campus compared to oil, especially because oil prices can fluctuate pretty dramatically. Certainly from an emissions standpoint the less energy we use, the less energy we have to pay for,” said Mr. Nyhus.