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A look at Williams College’s sustainability efforts after its pledge to divest from fossil fuels

Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College Director Tanja Srebotnjak
Josh Landes
Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College Director Tanja Srebotnjak.

This spring’s announcement that Williams College will divest from fossil fuels highlights the Williamstown, Massachusetts institution’s efforts around sustainability- and the person tasked with carrying them out.

In April, the private liberal arts college publicly committed to ending its longstanding investments in fossil fuels, after years of pressure from alumni and students.

“Last year, the Williams College Investment Committee decided that the college would not make any new investments in commingled funds that invest in fossil fuel energy projects," said Tanja Srebotnjak. "It was part of regular investment decision making processes, but it was welcomed by student, faculty, and campus advocates who have been calling for a public commitment to divest from fossil fuels for quite some time.”

Srebotnjak, 47, is the director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College. She says that Williams doesn’t directly hold fossil fuel energy stocks, and that by 2033 the college will fully phase out its investments in funds with relationships to fossil fuels.

“Divestment is one of multiple strategies and action areas that the college is pursuing," she told WAMC. "We take the viewpoint that the climate crisis is urgent, and that Williams College has a role to play in in addressing it, that our main avenue for bringing about change and action is through our education and research, but that we also need to act on campus. And so the energy and carbon master planning effort is one area where we are going to drastically reduce our own reliance on fossil fuels on campus.”

Srebotnjak came into the world of sustainability through her first job out of college.

“I was actually trained as a statistician and saw my future in the realm of health statistics, maybe at the World Health Organization," she said. "But I was fortunate to get a position in the UN statistics division in New York working on environmental statistics issues, and there, my interest and curiosity about the intersection between human wellbeing and environmental protection was born. After a few years, I decided to return to graduate school and learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of the growing sustainability movement and sustainability science. And following that degree, I took a variety of positions in academia, in environmental think tanks and advocacy organizations, and ultimately, here at Williams to advance organizational change around sustainability.”

Williams adopted a strategic plan in 2021 that embraces new strategies for sustainability.

“To give you one example, our new sustainable building policy, which is in the works, will set an ambitious, yet flexible goals for the energy efficiency and environmental performance of new and existing buildings on campus," said Srebotnjak. So you might start to see changes in how those buildings are powered. We are looking at, for example, using more geothermal heat and air source heat pumps to heat and cool our buildings.”

Infrastructure changes are a complicated issue at the college, where buildings range in age from centuries old to brand new.

“So one big area that we feel fairly certain about pursuing is to change our energy delivery system from, currently, steam to what's called low temperature hot water," Srebotnjak told WAMC. "So no longer steam, but a water that is about 140 degrees Fahrenheit hot. And so that requires a change to our pipeline and a piping system on campus.”

The ongoing sustainability effort might see other, more visible transformations to the Williams campus.

“Lawns are an issue that people have a variety of opinions on," said Srebotnjak. "Lawns can be supportive of various activities but are not necessarily seen as biodiversity rich. They also require constant care through mowing and weed and invasives control. So there have been a variety of proposals over the years to maybe change how we view and manage our lawns, including shrinking the acreage that is currently covered by natural lawns and to instead increase the number and acreage of meadows, pollinator space, and habitats that we have.”

Srebotnjak says that part of reconsidering Williams’ impact on the environment is making sure its physical infrastructure is in tune with its natural surroundings.

“We work to preserve, for example, our viewsheds, the views of the mountains, from as many places on campus as possible," she said. "Another area concerns our trees. There will be a new tree inventory that will be undertaken to identify what species of trees do we have on campus, how old are they, what is their status of health, and then from that derive management practices to protect and enhance tree coverage on campus.”

The multilayered approach contains multiple timelines — some short-term, and others decades away.

“We have, over the past year, made changes to how our waste is collected on campus," explained Srebotnjak. "We systematized our waste collection bins and moved to single stream waste collection. An area where change will take longer and require both careful planning and the commitment of substantial resources is in the area of climate change, where we hope to reduce the use of fossil fuels on campus by at least 80% by 2035- And that will really radically change the way we source and distribute energy on campus.”

With Williams operating on a year-round schedule, all of this needs to happen around the daily functions of the college.

“As we need to make infrastructure changes, including modifications in buildings and digging up trenches to supply energy to those buildings, we have to work with the programming and the teaching and research needs that exist on campus. And we want to impact those as minimally as possible, so that adds a layer of complexity to our timeline in milestone planning," Srebotnjak told WAMC. "But we're hopeful that come fall, we can engage the campus community and seek input on how that a transition to a much more decarbonized campus can unfold while ensuring that our faculty and staff and students can do their jobs and can receive the education that they've come here for.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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