February 23, 2011

Big mandate on campus:
Bowdoin becoming carbon neutral

Embracing an initiative by the nation's colleges and universities, Bowdoin takes some bold steps toward its ambitious 2020 goal.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK - It was midafternoon, but the February sun was still glinting off the 48 solar panels on the roof of Thorne Hall here. Downstairs, the online display that monitors the system's performance showed the panels were producing energy, helping to warm the 4,800 gallons of water that Bowdoin College uses each day at this dining hall.

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John Simoneau, capital projects manager in the facilities department at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, points out an addition to the campus’ steam heating system that recovers heat from the boiler’s exhaust, part of an overall commitment by the school to become carbon neutral by 2020.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Catherine Longley, a Bowdoin administator, shows the Lucid Building Dashboard, an energy monitor that displays the Btus being consumed by the heating system at Thorne Dining Hall on campus.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below


To see Bowdoin College's online energy monitor, visit


Work remains to be done, but by summer the array is expected to supply more than half the hall's hot water. Just as important, it will keep 91,520 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year, by not burning natural gas.

Bowdoin cares deeply about carbon. The school is working to honor the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, a five-year-old initiative aimed at achieving "carbon neutrality" on the nation's campuses. A total of 677 schools have signed on so far.

In Maine, the commitment has so far been signed by the presidents of 15 schools. These institutions account for 75 percent of all college students in Maine, and give the state one of the highest participation rates in the country.

Only one U.S. school has achieved climate neutrality -- College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

Bowdoin has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020, even as the school expands in size. Becoming carbon neutral means removing from the atmosphere as much of the gases associated with climate change as each school puts in. The prime targets are so-called greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, which is a byproduct of burning fuel.


The program is based on a conviction that the planet is threatened by man-made climate change and that college campuses can take a leadership role in helping to stabilize the atmosphere.

That premise isn't universally accepted. Some people, including politicians, business interests and scientists, dispute the notion that humans are contributing to climate change.

In a statement, the college presidents' group said the science is well established, with much of the research done at member schools. Rather than engaging in the debate, however, it chooses to focus on the benefits of moving toward carbon neutrality. These include creating jobs, saving money, strengthening national security and encouraging innovation.

The first step in becoming carbon neutral is defining a starting point, a carbon footprint. Schools tally their heating, gasoline and power bills. They conduct inventories and use verifiable assumptions and calculations to estimate their greenhouse gas emissions for a given date.

Bowdoin determined that the school released 24,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2008. The biggest sources came from electricity use, 44 percent, followed by heating and vehicles, 42 percent. The rest came largely from employee commuting, transmission line losses and travel.

The commitment program defines climate neutrality as no net releases of these gases. Schools can become carbon neutral by eliminating net emissions on campus. They also can compensate for any remaining emissions by cutting or avoiding releases off-campus, such as buying electricity from hydroelectric dams.

Bowdoin participates in a market that trades "renewable energy credits" from sources that include dams in Lisbon Falls and Rumford and a wind farm in Mars Hill. It will spend $35,000 this year to buy credits.

Schools that counterbalance emissions with credits and so-called carbon offsets must enter into deals that can be verified. They are required to trigger a reduction in gas emissions that wouldn't otherwise have happened.

Offsets aren't always perfect solutions. For instance: Power from the Mars Hill wind farm goes to Canada, not New England. Still, Bowdoin favors local offsets that are easier to verify, said Catherine Longley, the school's senior vice president for finance and administration.

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Daniel Welch, Bowdoin’s maintenance project manager, describes how Thorne Dining Hall’s water is heated by solar panels, one of several energy system upgrades meant to reduce the Brunswick school’s carbon footprint.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

This array of solar units on the roof of Bowdoin College’s Thorne Dining Hall provides about 50 percent of the energy required to heat the water of the dining facility, according to administrator Catherine Longley.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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