Boston University prioritized impact over location in deciding to buy electricity from a South Dakota wind farm.

Boston University has started sourcing all of its electricity from a newly built wind farm in South Dakota, a move intended to maximize the university’s greenhouse gas reductions and hopefully provide a model for how other large institutions can also amplify their climate impact. 

The school will buy enough electricity from the Midwestern turbines to cover its annual consumption of 205 million kilowatt-hours. In the process, it will cut carbon emissions by up to three times as much as if the university had chosen to procure renewable energy closer to home. 

“We were very deliberate about finding the project with the greatest impact we could find,” said Dennis Carlberg, associate vice president for university sustainability.

The process of bringing the wind farm online began in 2015, when Carlberg first proposed the university look into sourcing renewable energy for its power needs. Then, in 2017, the school produced its first climate action plan, which included a pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040, in part by buying renewable electricity.

Though renewable energy advocates often promote locally sourced power as the best option, the chair of the university’s climate action task force questioned that conventional wisdom. 

“He kept asking us why doing a project in New England or nearby was so important,” Carlberg said. “He kept saying we should find a project that will have the greatest impact we can have on global greenhouse gas emissions because the climate doesn’t care where our reductions come from.”

About half of the electricity in New England is generated by burning natural gas, which produces less emissions than coal or oil; another 30% comes from nuclear plants. In other parts of the country, coal is a much bigger part of the mix, sometimes fueling more than

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