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For climate, we need construction everywhere, all at once

whitman-construction Candace Do DP (1).jpg
Portions of the lawn in front of Whitman College are under construction as the University implements its new geoexchange program. 
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

For the unprecedented clean energy transition before us, the world will need to build an unfathomable amount of infrastructure at extraordinary speeds. Over the next three decades in America, we will witness wind turbines being erected at a breakneck pace, solar farms cropping up seemingly out of nowhere, and transmission lines shooting across the country as we muster every available resource to decarbonize as soon as possible. The United States will be a country under construction like never before – impacting our lives in potentially disruptive ways. 

Put simply, we aren’t ready for that impact yet. Because many of us in the Orange Bubble weren’t used to living with disruption prior to the recent increase in on-campus construction, the ramp-up towards mass infrastructure buildout will likely be an uncomfortable adjustment — one that has already caused quite a few complaints on campus. But this story needs to change: the national effort to reach net-zero emissions is exciting in its ambition, and presents a much-needed shift in how we power our lives. Princeton’s own energy transition gives us an opportunity to recognize that inspiring larger transition.


To reach its net-zero goal by 2046, Princeton is undergoing a process of rapid decarbonization. The University is deploying solar panels, tightening building efficiency, and phasing out its fossil-fuel-powered heating and cooling infrastructure in favor of a renewable — and highly efficient — geo-exchange system. Geo-exchange will mostly replace the current 15-megawatt cogeneration plant on campus and slash energy input for heating and cooling by up to 80 percent. To build out the needed infrastructure for this project, Princeton is ripping up campus to snake 13 miles of hot water pipes between buildings and to drill thousands of 850-foot-deep boreholes into the bedrock below Princeton. This has likely not gone unnoticed; the drilling, pounding, and digging can hardly be ignored on the walk to class.

Justifiably, this construction has garnered a lot of student criticism, especially because geo-exchange construction sites accompany a slew of other University construction projects that aren’t related to net-zero infrastructure. Together, these projects make campus feel like one giant construction zone. But even in isolation, the sunken channels cutting through the paths near Frist or by Whitman don’t garner much sympathy – for good reason. These sites make walking outside unpleasant: they’re noisy, they block views, and they can make students feel like the University doesn’t care about their experiences.

Princeton can undoubtedly do more to minimize these nuisances. But we students have a responsibility, too: we must begin to recognize the importance of the construction of renewable infrastructure because the success of our decarbonization sprint depends upon it. While the current geo-exchange construction seems large-scale, it is only a small taste of what’s to come.  

Our mindset around renewable infrastructure projects must change as soon as possible because we’re about to build these projects on a scale and speed unheard of in most people’s lifetimes. Princeton’s own Net Zero America Project presents us with a sense of that scale. The study — though funded by BP and Exxon — set out five compelling technological pathways that America could take to reach net zero emissions by 2050. In one of these scenarios, it is estimated that we will need to assemble the equivalent of two 400-megawatt solar farms every week for the next 30 years. Each of these solar farms would take up the land area of 130 Tokyo Olympic stadiums — around 10 square miles. 

That’s just scratching the surface. By 2050, a scenario which heavily relies on wind and solar charges the nation to bring online 47 gigawatts of solar energy and 51 gigawatts of wind, each and every year (for reference, the most solar we’ve ever built in a year was a paltry 10 gigawatts; for wind, 15 gigawatts). In short, we will need to put the pedal to the metal and blow past renewable energy construction records each year, every year, for decades to come.

These solar and wind projects will have an enormous impact on the landscape. The most cost-effective of the Princeton study’s scenarios expects us to construct enough wind infrastructure to span a visual footprint the size of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee put together (an important caveat: a wind farm’s visual footprint includes all of the area around each wind turbine, which commonly is around 75 acres per turbine, so while wind turbines are themselves relatively small, when spread out they can span vast distances). In the same scenario, we’ll have to install enough solar panels to cover an area equivalent to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts combined. In another pathway to net-zero, Net Zero America estimates that by 2050, we could have to cover up to 14 percent of the country with wind and solar farms. Fourteen percent: over 530,000 square miles! 


These farms won’t just appear overnight, we need to build them. That requires a staggering amount of construction all over the country. We must be ready for it. The mindset we take on towards renewable infrastructure construction at Princeton will define the extent to which we are prepared for the wave of critical construction in the decades ahead. 

Princeton’s geo-exchange project provides us with the opportunity to make this narrative shift. If we perpetuate a negative mindset towards the project today, we compromise our acceptance of renewable buildout tomorrow. But if we change the narrative, if we let geo-exchange become a source of pride (or accomplishment, at least), we will allow the net-zero energy transition to happen at the blistering pace required. 

This is not to say we can’t continue to voice criticism; in fact, we must scrutinize each and every renewable project and be vocal with our criticism to avoid the environmental injustices of previous energy transitions which disproportionately endangered low-income communities and communities of color. At Princeton, that’s why calls from students to increase two-way channels of communication between the University and students and build in transparency to the construction process are so important: constructive criticism like this will help to build accountability and ensure a just and equitable transition moving forward.

We don’t have to thrill at the bulldozers, cranes, and fences necessary for renewable infrastructure projects. But if we appreciate that every green construction site we see brings us one step closer to a climate-safe future, we might just stand a chance of meeting the challenge ahead of us. 

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Contributing columnist Alex Norbrook (he/him) is a first-year from Baltimore, Md., intending to major in anthropology or politics. He can be reached at