Update on the Energy and Carbon Master Plan

The conclusion of the 2020 Sustainability Goals and the finalization of the 2021 Strategic Plan provided the impetus to review the college’s progress in reducing its emissions and develop new goals and strategies that align with institutional priorities and the need to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Zilkha Center thus initiated the development of a Climate Action Plan and facilitated the translation of the Strategic Plan goal of “sharply reducing emissions from campus combustion through energy conservation measures and shifting to renewable energy sources” into an emission reduction target of 80 percent for stationary campus fossil fuel combustion and purchased electricity well before 2050.

Achieving the latter requires the complete upgrade of the college’s decades-old steam heating and hot water system powered by our own natural gas co-generation plant to a highly efficient system that is powered by electricity, sourced increasingly from renewables, and harnesses the ground and ambient air as natural energy sources and storage. 

To develop the plan, dubbed the Energy and Carbon Master Plan (ECMP), the college, led by Jason Moran in Planning, Design & Construction, contracted with RMF Engineering based in Baltimore to figure out all of the technical details, life cycle cost estimates, emission reductions, and temporal phasing schedules for this enormous energy systems transition. 

Underway since fall 2021, the ECMP reached an important interim milestone in June when the Board of Trustees greenlighted the implementation of Phase 1 of the plan. This phase includes the upgrade of the college’s medium voltage electrical distribution system, the full renovation and conversion of several student residence halls to low-temperature hot water, and the construction of the first district energy plant that will generate heating, cooling, and hot water via heat pump technology and supplemented by high-efficiency natural gas condensing boilers during the winter months. 

Truck with tall red drilling equipment attached
Photo by Diliara Sadykova ’26

Although most of the ECMP work has so far involved data collection, modeling, and cost estimation, keen observers might have noticed or read in the Construction Activity Notices that the college drilled a geothermal heat exchange test well in May at the site of the former Williams Inn. The well provided data on the thermal heat exchange and storage potential—found to be moderately good—for use by the future new Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) and in support of the ECMP.

In the nearer term, you can expect ECMP activities to become a bit more noticeable on campus. For example, plans are being finalized to drill a second test well on the north side of campus. Topographical field survey and data collection will begin in the fall in the areas where Phase 1 of the ECMP will be implemented. It is expected that some level of construction regarding the ECMP could occur as soon as spring of 2025. 

Now that the ECMP is entering its first implementation phase, Jason and the Zilkha Center are working with the Communications Office to create a designated website that will soon provide information on the goals of the ECMP, explanations of the technologies that will be used, and—very importantly—updates on construction activities and community learning and engagement opportunities. The latter might be of particular interest to faculty and students interested in the design, physics, climate benefits, and other aspects of a campus-scale clean energy transition. 

The ECMP team welcomes your questions and ideas for making it as inclusive, engaging and insightful as possible; feel free to reach out to Jason (jmoran2) and Tanja (ts20).