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Decarbonizing Swarthmore's Energy Systems

Robin Htun '18 stands on a white rooftop, bent over taking a photograph of a small blue device, a solar pathfinder. Green treetops and a blue sky are visible in the background.

Engineering student Robin Htun '18 records images of a solar pathfinder to estimate the potential solar generation on the Science Center roof. 

Roadmap to Zero: Energy Master Plan

Our goal: Eliminate emissions from electricity and natural gas

Climate change poses a grave threat to human health, safety, and well-being. Building on Swarthmore’s mission to educate for the common good, the College seeks to model the transformation that society will need to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Swarthmore has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2035, which will require eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, natural gas, transportation, construction, and procurement.

The “Roadmap to Zero” will chart a proposed pathway to carbon neutrality for the first two major sources—electricity and natural gas—while providing reliable, cost-effective, and sustainable electricity, heating, and cooling for the campus.

Broadly, decarbonizing an energy system requires three steps:

  1. Switching to zero-carbon electricity
  2. Electrifying heating, cooling, and transportation
  3. Deep energy efficiency

Explore below to learn more about what a zero-carbon campus will look like at Swarthmore.

More about the Roadmap to Zero Plan

To decarbonize our electricity, Swarthmore has the potential to generate about 10-15% of our projected future demand with on-site solar installations. To get to 100%, the College is exploring off-site renewable energy generation options.

To provide zero-carbon hot and cold air and water for the campus, we will need to use electricity instead of natural gas. Electricity can power heat pumps to move heat from one place to another rather than generating new heat from combustion. For example, a window air conditioner pumps heat from a building interior to the outside. A heat pump can work in both directions, and can use other reservoirs of heat rather than the outdoor air, including the ground or water.

Most buildings will be connected to a hot water loop, which will derive its heat from ground-source heat pumps, and a cold water loop, which will be cooled by electric chillers and ground-source heat pumps. Some buildings may be on independent ground-source or air-source heat pump systems. The heating systems will be supplemented with solar hot water panels, and possibly by channeling waste heat from waste sources such as wastewater, kitchens, or the data center. Burning waste vegetable oil could support heating needs without emissions, but would require a reliable local supplier.

To keep campus power online when the grid experiences outages, backup electricity sources will be required from an on-campus generator, batteries, or other electricity storage technologies. Storage will also help avoid the campus demanding more electricity at a time than the grid infrastructure can handle.

Swarthmore's Heating & Cooling Systems in 2019

Where does Swarthmore’s heating & cooling currently come from?

The central heat plant generates steam that heats air and water for most of the campus. The plant burns natural gas, with #2 fuel oil as backup. Most buildings not connected to the steam loop have small natural gas boilers. Whittier Hall and the PPR Apartments get heating and cooling from ground-source heat pumps, with some supplemental hot water from the solar thermal panels on the Apartments. Air-source heat pumps support Hicks, the Danawell Connector, and the Mullan Tennis Center. A new hot water loop will heat the Maxine Frank Singer '52 Hall, and will be gradually expanded to replace the steam loop.

Analogously to the central steam loop, most campus buildings connect to a centralized chilled water loop, powered by one natural gas and two electric chillers. Similar to the decentralized basement boilers, peripheral buildings use local air conditioning units. Air and ground source heat pumps provide both heating and cooling for connected buildings.

Other points of interest:

  • The College's Building Management System allows Facilities staff to centrally monitor and control heating and lighting for most buildings. This ensures that buildings and rooms are only heated/cooled to comfort temperature when they are in use.

  • During regular hours, winter temperatures in buildings are set to 68 degrees and summer temperatures are set to 76 degrees.

  • In winter months, temperatures are set back on nights and weekends and at midday in residence halls. Building temperatures are set back during holiday breaks and domestic hot water is turned off. Learn more about heating systems in residence halls here.

  • You can see real-time electrical demand and water usage data in campus buildings here [not currently working].

Swarthmore's Electricity Systems in 2019

Where does Swarthmore’s electricity currently come from?

The Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) serves as Swarthmore’s gas and electric utility. PECO is part of the Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland (PJM) regional transmission system, which you can access for real-time electricity information is available. A handful of buildings have solar photovoltaic systems, which slightly reduces the electricity Swarthmore consumes from the grid.

Electricity is delivered to campus through a single transformer, and limitations in the maximum wattage that the current infrastructure can supply may constrain future growth in demand. That constraint will require the College to control and offset peak demand and work with PECO to increase campus capacity.

The campus has experienced power infrequent, prolonged outages, for which it was necessary to rent large diesel generators to power the campus.

Other points of interest:

  • The College has purchased Renewable Energy Credits in the form of wind power since 1999.  The College has gradually increased that commitment so that currently 100% of the College's greenhouse gas emissions generated as a result of electricity are offset by Renewable Energy Credits.
The Roadmap to Zero Working Group

The Roadmap to Zero Working Group convened in August 2018, and includes representatives from Facilities, Sustainability, ITS, and Finance. The Integral Group provides engineering support and systems analysis, and GreenerU provides project management, communications, and planning support. An Advisory Board of external sustainability professionals and stakeholders lent their expertise to the process as well.

The Working Group includes:

  • Tom Cochrane, Senior Project Manager
  • Joel Cooper, Chief Information Technology Officer
  • Andrew Feick, Associate Vice President of Sustainable Facilities Operations and Capital Planning
  • Nathaniel Graf ‘16, Climate Action Senior Fellow
  • Domenic Porrini, Heat Plant and Energy Supervisor

  • Janet Semler, Director of Capital Planning & Project Management

  • Ralph Thayer, Director of Maintenance
  • Aurora Winslade, Director of Sustainability
  • Roderick Wolfson, Planner and Project Manager
  • GreenerU, project management consultant
  • Integral Group, engineering consultant

Reach out to us with any questions, comments, or feedback at If there’s additional info you’d like us to make available on our site, let us know!