To the Editors:
I write to express my concern about the misleading and false claims being made by Oberlin College with regard to The Hotel at Oberlin. I understand that our nation has a President who lies on a regular basis and the public is apparently unwilling to hold him accountable. But is the College no different?
A recent article in the Spring 2018 issue of the Oberlin College Alumni Magazine claims that “The hotel … is one of only five U.S. hotels to have qualified for the rigorous LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Its heating and cooling systems rely on a geothermal well field …” These claims are also posted on the Hotel’s website, www.thehotelatoberlin.com. Nearly two years ago, the Alumni Magazine wrote that the Hotel was 100 percent solar-powered, a claim still made on the Hotel’s website.
The above claims are a combination of lies and deceit. The Hotel at Oberlin is not LEED-certified at any level! The designers of this building are working on the process of certification, and hope to one day achieve the coveted platinum rating. Thousands of buildings have declared their intent to become LEED-certified while never actually achieving that goal. Others achieve certification, but fall short of their original target. It is a bold-faced lie to claim the Hotel is a LEED Platinum building until it achieves that status. Academia considers words and titles to be very important. A professor discovered to have made false claims about their degree will readily be terminated. It is important that our institution meets these same standards of integrity.
The claim that the Hotel “relies on a geothermal well field” for its heat is partially true, but entirely misleading. The majority of the Hotel’s heat comes from natural gas which, conveniently, is not mentioned in the article. In fact, The Hotel at Oberlin annually burns more natural gas than any other Oberlin College building except for the Science Center! This may not be the design intent, but it is the end result. The Hotel at Oberlin is the crowning achievement of the now-defunct Oberlin Project. The Oberlin Project and its supporters have fought to keep natural gas out of this community. The hypocrisy is simply stunning.
As far as the solar power claim — consider the facts. There is not a single solar collector on the Hotel or its property. Like other College buildings, the Hotel purchases its electricity (1,500,000 kWh annually — nearly double used by the building it replaced) from the local power company. Oberlin College would have you believe that the Hotel is powered by the large Oberlin Spearpoint Solar One photovoltaic array north of the athletic fields. But this PV array was constructed in 2012, long before the hotel ever existed. From the outset, the College chose to connect the OSSO array directly to the city power grid (not to campus buildings) and entered a 25-year contract with the city in which the city takes all of the energy generated by the OSSO array in exchange for money ($0.085 per kWh). Oberlin Municipal Light & Power Systems counts this array among its generation assets and sends the College a monthly check for the electric energy produced by the array. All College buildings continue to purchase electricity from OMLPS as they did before the array was ever constructed. The electricity generated by this array is distributed to all OMLPS customers.
The College keeps the renewable energy credits associated with this array. Presumably, the College can assign these credits to any building it wishes — Finney Chapel, the Hotel, Wilder — the list is large. If this is what the College means by solar powered building, then any building in the world can have the same distinction by simply purchasing solar RECs from the REC market. The claim is hollow and deceptive. Usually a PV array is added to a building to make it greener. Here a building is added to a PV array to make it dirtier! The solar claim is nonsense and just shows how shallow Oberlin College’s sustainable claims are.
Should it one day bestow its LEED platinum rating on The Hotel at Oberlin, the USGBC then faces a serious problem. You see, The Hotel at Oberlin’s energy use is rather high for a hotel. The Energy Information Administration estimates there to be 30,000 hotels in the U.S. The EIA’s 2012 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey shows that the median energy use per square foot for these 30,000 hotels is less than what it is for The Hotel at Oberlin. In other words, The Hotel at Oberlin uses more energy than 15,000 other hotels in the U.S. on a per square foot basis — not exactly the stellar performance you expect from one of the five greenest hotels in the world.
If the Oberlin College administration is willing to misrepresent The Hotel at Oberlin’s green characteristics, why should we believe its claims on related issues? It is widely-known that the Hotel was millions of dollars over-budget and is responsible, in part, for the College’s current budget crisis. President Ambar claims that the Hotel now contributes $700,000 to our annual deficit, and that this will go away in a few years when she projects that the Hotel will break even. But take a look at the empty first-floor retail space and ask yourself — who provided the President with this rosy prediction?
Furthermore, all evidence suggests that the College is marching down the same path with The Hotel at Oberlin that it did 16 years earlier with the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. That building used three times more energy than its designers claimed it would. More than a decade after the AJLC was constructed, after one to two million dollars in design changes and upgrades (including the tripling the size of its PV Array) that building still used more energy than it produced annually — despite numerous College claims to the contrary. (See John H. Scofield, “A paler shade of green” for more information.)
Unless it honestly faces up to its inflated claims about The Hotel at Oberlin, there is every reason to believe the College will pour millions more into this building fixing design flaws and trying to cover its ass on the false claims it has already made. It is time for the College to admit its mistakes and move forward with transparency.