College To Vet Wind Energy

Students will consider energy on council presidential ballots

In the College-wide vote that begins today, undergraduates will decide whether the College should start to dump coal, oil, gas and nuclear fuel in favor of a clean source of energy: wind.

The referendum approved by the Undergraduate Council last night will ask students whether the College should join the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) and the School of Public Health (HSPH) in purchasing a significant amount of renewable energy.

The question, which will appear on the online ballot for council president, will ask students if they support a new clean energy fee on their termbill and if so, whether the $10 yearly charge should be opt-in, opt-out or mandatory.

The Harvard Environmental Action Committee (EAC), which endorses the opt-out option, estimates that $10 from each of the College’s 6,559 undergraduates would pay for about 4 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of renewable energy—roughly 25 percent of the College dorms’ annual electricity consumption, or the total yearly production of one state-of-the-art wind turbine.

The purchase would represent taking 482 cars off the road for one year and equal the annual electricity use of 370 average American homes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At issue is the College’s purchase of renewable energy certificates (RECs)—tradable units that represent the output of a wind farm somewhere in the country. If the referendum passes, most of Harvard’s actual electricity would still come from nuclear and fossil fuel power plants in New England, while the premium it would pay for the certificates would go to renewable energy sources in Texas, Colorado and Minnesota, among other states.

“You’re counterbalancing your own coal use with someone else’s use of wind,” explains Alexander L. Pasternack ’05, who helped organize the Harvard Students for Clean Energy group, which co-sponsored the referendum proposal together with the EAC.

The theory goes that as demand for RECs rises, wind farms become more lucrative, in turn enticing companies to build more of them and reducing the nation’s consumption of “dirty” energy.

“The hope in this kind of program is that by making renewable energy more attractive [for entrepreneurs]—by underwriting some of the startup costs and so on—it’ll be more attractive to build more facilities,” says Larry Black, the KSG buildings manager.

WINDS OF CHANGE

For weeks, members of the EAC have been arguing that renewable energy is a crucial first step to bringing the environmental benefits of wind power to Boston.

Among those working the hardest for the campus-wide referendum have been Pasternack, who is also a Crimson editor, and Allison I. Rogers ’04.

After graduating in June, Rogers has stayed in Cambridge through a Harvard University Management Fellowship and has continued her push for renewable energy, which she began last spring as a council representative.

Rogers now works for the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, a University-wide organization to promote environmental sustainability, and also advises the EAC in its pursuit of clean energy.

Over the past few weeks, the energy campaign has consumed many of its supporters’ waking hours, as they lobbied council representatives in advance of last week’s votes and prepared an all-out effort to win student support for a new fee.

Before submitting the referendum bill to the Student Affairs Committee (SAC) last Tuesday, proponents of renewable energy for the College spent so much time debating the best way to pursue their goal that they almost ran out of time to push a referendum onto the presidential ballot, which has historically drawn higher participation than other campus-wide votes.

The EAC initially considered whether to pass referendum legislation through the council, to ask the administration itself to foot the bill, or to solicit donations, as Quincy House did last April when they powered the House with renewable energy for one week.

With less than three weeks left before this week’s presidential vote, the EAC chose the referendum, which they thought would likely raise more money than a donation drive and send a signal of student support to Mass. Hall.

“Basically,” Pasternack says, “the administration wants to see that students really care about this.”

The administration has already proved they were willing to listen to and act on students’ concerns. In October, the University announced its own sustainability principles in response to students’ concerns about the environmental impact of developing a new campus in Allston.

The first of the six principles, for which University President Lawrence H. Summers has announced his support, states that Harvard will “demonstrat[e] institutional practices that promote sustainability, including measures to increase efficiency and use of renewable resources.”

“With him endorsing and publicly stating that the University should adopt these principles, we should really start to see this movement accelerate,” says Daniel O. Beaudoin, manager of operations, energy and utilities at HSPH.

In addition, some students and staff have argued that the University has a duty to buy renewable energy with some of the money it has saved since 2002 in energy costs thanks to the Resource Efficiency Program (REP).

“If the [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] is showing dollar savings one would question why one wouldn’t invest part of that savings into wind energy,” Beaudoin says.

A GUST OF SUPPORT

The College’s purchase of renewable energy has garnered nearly unequivocal support among the current candidates for council leadership, all of whom co-sponsored the legislation for the referendum.

“I think Harvard should be more environmentally conscious and serve as an example for other schools in this area,” says presidential candidate Matthew J. Glazer ’06.

Teo P. Nicolais ’06, who is also running for president, says the student body and the administration should seriously consider the prospect of the purchase.

“The key thing to evaluate is that whenever we increase a service to students, somehow or other we realize the cost,” Nicolais says, regarding the possibility that administration might match the student contributions. “One way or another that’s going to come out of the University’s budget, and that money could have been used for other services.”

While presidential candidate Tracy T. Moore II ’06 did not respond to requests for comment, Ian W. Nichols ’06, Moore’s running mate, has said he views a termbill fee as only a “temporary solution,” and that the administration should eventually foot the bill for renewable energy.

Even so, a spring 2003 survey conducted by REP suggests that the student body is receptive to the idea of a new termbill fee. About 69 percent of the more than 2,000 undergraduates surveyed said they would be “willing” to pay an extra $25 in room and board to allow for one-fifth of their residence’s energy to come from renewable sources.

A SECOND WIND?

Supporters of the referendum see it as a stepping stone to eventually deriving all of Harvard’s electricity—about 225 million kWh annually, according to the EAC—from renewable sources, and to encourage the creation of wind farms closer to Cambridge.

“I think that in the near future it’d be very feasible to see Harvard University on 50 or 100 percent wind power, but it’d be really great if it were local,” Beaudoin says.

To that end, Energy Strategist Mary H. Smith says the University may purchase a long-term commitment in a New England renewable energy source such as Cape Wind, a project to build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. (The proposal is facing fierce opposition from many Cape Cod residents, who fear the offshore turbines would harm their ocean view.)

Looking even further ahead, some clean energy supporters hope to see the construction of Harvard’s own wind turbine on the new Allston campus, which is to be developed over the next decade.

In an e-mail, Harvard’s Senior Director of Community Relations Mary H. Power denied any “specific consideration” of an Allston turbine.

While the idea is a “cool” one, said Smith, the energy strategist, “I think at this time it’s a dream.”