Monday, September 21, 2009

Cost Effective Investment in a "Green Campus": Evidence from Hamilton College

I can barely remember my Hamilton College days. Somehow the mid-1980s are a blur. Perhaps graduate school erased my hard disk. But, this letter that I quote from below makes me proud. The President of Hamilton College is not a Ph.D. economist but she sounds "as if" she is one in this hard headed letter. I see a forward looking thinker who anticipates technological advance and a long payback period for the current generation of green products (especially if carbon pricing is not enacted). Please see my additional comment after her quote.

She must be taking some heat for not "going green" today but her choices will make Hamilton College more "sustainable" in the long run. She is a "Profile in Courage".

"As I look around our beautiful campus, even more beautiful in my eyes after a few months’ absence, I feel strongly the responsibility to sustain this place and the experience it provides. And so I ask myself again, as I often have in the past, “What does it take to be a sustainable campus, a sustainable college?” The answer is, frankly, especially complex in stringent times, and entails intersecting matters of education, finances, construction, people and choices – endless choices.

Let me evoke one such recent choice. The summer months were, as usual, busy with renovation, repair and construction projects, for a campus the size and expanse of Hamilton – 113 buildings spread over 1350 acres – requires a continuous round of maintenance. One of the first discussions in which I participated centered on the renovation of Emerson Hall (originally built in 1928 and known as ELS) into a student center. This is a project many of us have long wanted to bring to fruition, for it responds to needs for meeting, office and activity space that have been consistently expressed by students over the years. It will house our wonderful campus activities staff and provide a central place for the work of the numerous student organizations that form so essential a part of the Hamilton College experience. But the specific subject of the conversation that I was called on to moderate was solar panels. Should we or should we not put them on the roof of the renovated building? On the one hand, it was argued that they would be a visible sign of our commitment to being “green,” mirroring not only the solar panels recently installed on the renovated Kirner-Johnson Building but also the windmill on the Kirkland side of campus (a gift from the Class of 1991), and resonating with other initiatives of the last few years such as geothermal heating systems, Zipcars, a community garden, our food service’s farm-to-fork program, and even the use of commencement regalia made of recyclable materials. On the other hand, the energy generated by such panels would be small and the payback long – perhaps 40 to 50 years, during which time the technology will evolve – and there are countless competing needs to which we must attend. Do the actual contributions to preserving the planet and the symbolic contributions to Hamilton’s image outweigh the decades-long timeframe necessary to recoup the expense?"

A quote from Hamilton College's President Joan Stewart

FOLLOWUP: Two commenters made some good points but I'd like to add a new point. The President of Hamilton holds an option here. If President Obama signs a Cap and Trade Carbon Bill (and I hope he does), then the payback period on this solar panel investment will shrink. Stewart has not said "no" she has said "not yet". She has the option of exercising this option in the future when better, cheaper solar panels are available and when electricity prices are higher due to explicit carbon pricing (which will drive up the price of power generated by coal and other fossil fuels).