Sustainability and the ERI

The ERI is one of many groups interested in sustainability at Vassar. Major campus projects are at This page gives additional updates on projects. For related projects, see also Geospatial Mapping at Vassar.

Hurricanes at the petrochemical epicenter
How central is Houston to US energy infrastructure, and how vulnerable is that infrastructure to hurricanes? This online map app  to get a sense of how our oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure converge in this vulnerable spot. Also shown are petrochemical spill events reported by the Energy Information Agency  (EIA).

Houston is a center of petrochemical industry for the United States, and the industry is everywhere. The refinery complex below, for example, is just a block from a residential trailer park, and a couple of blocks from Crenshaw Elementary School.

For a lot of us, this basic infrastructure is largely invisible. But this is where our gasoline comes from, as well as countless varieties of plastics, household chemicals and compounds, and other substances.

As a footnote, while gasoline production was shut down for several days during Hurricane Harvey, and prices rose around the country, Texas wind energy production experienced only brief shutdowns with no reported damage.

What do we do about dorm overheating?
One of the projects undertaken by Collins Fellow John Brandt (’16) did during his post-baccalaureate year at Vassar has been a study of the chronic problem of dorm overheating. As a former resident of Main Building, John had multiple reasons to be interested in this problem. Vassar is not alone is having dorms where temperatures soar to near 80 degrees on a cold winter day, but it’s certainly a problem many students will recognize. What to do about it? Read the report here.

Observed room temperatures; black reference line is 70 degrees.

Temperatures during a week in February. Gray bars show 5-hour night setback.

John is presumably taking what he learned to Yale, where he is now working on a Masters in Environmental Management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science.

Lessons from Bremen and Frankfurt, Germany
In August, 2017 Jenny Magnes (Physics) and Mary Ann Cunningham (Geography) visited Germany in preparation for a course on Renewable Energy in Germany, scheduled for Spring semester 2018. The planning trip produced some useful insights for Vassar’s sustainability efforts. Read more here.

Green Building in China
Yu Zhou (Geography) has been investigating sustainability, energy transition, and green building in China for the past several years. Read more at this link.

Climate Action Plan
In August, 2016 President Cappy Hill endorsed the Vassar Climate Action Plan. We are now one of many colleges and universities, and cities and businesses, aiming for carbon neutrality. Finding the path to neutrality will take exploring, but we have plenty of company in the effort. The Climate Action Plan also underlies sustainability expectations in the 2017 Campus Master Plan.  Read more about the plan.

Room for improvement: Infrared images show heat loss from Main building in winter (left) and from a steam line crossing the lawn toward Taylor (right).


The Economics of Climate Change

Cheap energy isn’t really cheap anymore. The use of fossil fuels is a major cause of global warming, triggering more frequent and increasingly severe hurricanes and typhoons that are costing us billions every year. That’s the thesis of Climate Change and Natural Disasters by Vinod Thomas, a former member of Vassar’s economics faculty.  Read the rest of the article here

Green Building Standards
Vassar College Committee on Sustainability,

Zach Zill, our 2016 summer EDF Climate Corps fellow, outlined and approach to establishing green building standards as we look forward to renovations outlined in the master plan. Green building involves new practices, and especially new ideas about timing and priorities. Sometimes it costs more up front, sometimes it costs the same as the less efficient practices. But our built capital is an investment that can yield real dollars in avoided costs–if we plan thoughtfully. Green practices also can also provide many co-benefits, including more even heating, natural ventilation, more daylight, and healthier, more productive work spaces.  Read a summary here, and find Zach’s recommendations here