Amplifying our Impact Through a Collaborative Approach

I just can’t seem to stay away from Amherst (really, the Pioneer Valley more broadly), and it’s not the wider range of restaurants and good coffee that are drawing me there.

I’m recently taken my second work-related trip to the Pioneer Valley in as many weeks. Williams, Amherst, Smith, Hampshire (and sometimes UMass Amherst) are working on several joint projects – we’re hoping to amplify our impact, and we help keep each other sane and on track.

The first project is related to renewable energy purchasing. Williams is actively investigating whether it’s possible to develop and own one or more large scale renewable electricity projects in the Berkshires – think a small wind farm or large solar farm. The idea of a local project is appealing on many levels, but there are a lot of challenges to overcome. Because of that, we’re hedging our bets by looking in to purchasing renewable energy from projects slightly further afield, and for that, we’re working collaboratively with our peers. Our hope is that by working together, we can increase the size of the project we help create through our purchase (and hopefully get a slightly better price through economies of scale).  We’re still in the process of looking for options – we released an “RFP” (Request for Proposals) that invited renewable energy developers to propose their projects to us, and we’re working to analyze those proposals.

We’re also working collaboratively on a project we’re calling the “Community Carbon Fund” – where our institutions will sponsor carbon reduction projects in the local community.  Williams is working hard to reduce its own energy use and increase its use of renewable energy, but there’s a limit to how much we can reduce emissions in any given year (we’re mostly limited by the fact that our buildings are occupied year round, and serious work on insulation and windows can’t be done while a building is occupied). With that in mind, we’re looking for ways to decrease emissions elsewhere and take credit for the reduced carbon.

As a group, Williams, Amherst, Smith, and Hampshire have hired a local environmental non-profit (Center for EcoTechnology) to help us design a program where the colleges would help pay for energy efficiency improvements in local non-profits, schools, and businesses. The local organizations would benefit from lower energy costs (and increased comfort), and Williams or one of our peers would count the emissions reductions for our own goals. We haven’t yet implemented a project – one of the crucial lessons we’ve learned is that even if Williams is willing to highly subsidize an efficiency project, local organizations may just not have the money to do it. so we’ve started to investigate providing zero interest financing in addition to a subsidy. We’re hopeful that our first community project will happen in the next several months.

The collaborative approach has been critical in setting standards for what we consider to be appropriate reduction projects – we want to be funding projects that wouldn’t have happened without our help (“additional”) and we want to have solid ways of measuring the impact of a project. By working together, our different institutions keep each other intellectually rigorous about our approach.    

– Amy Johns, Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives

(this blogpost was initially published in the Zilkha Center newsletter)

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