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The Carletonian

Martha Larson, Director of Sustainability, leaves Carleton

As Spring Term 2022 comes to an end, Carleton is losing Martha Larson, the Manager of Campus Energy and Sustainability. Larson has been at Carleton for the past 12 years, and comments from her coworkers and students who have worked with her emphasize the positive impact that she has had on sustainability both at Carleton and in the surrounding community, as well as her powerful role in sustainability education on campus. 

Larson leaves to join RMF Engineering, a company based in Baltimore, as the Director of Sustainability. She plans to work remotely and remain in Northfield, and she says that “this new role will allow me to keep ‘sustainability’ in my job title while focusing mostly on energy and utility decarbonization projects at colleges and universities across the country. It provides the perfect opportunity to grow and expand my perspective, as I’ll be exposed to a much larger variety of project types and sizes.” 

She says that staying in Northfield was intentional, since she ” want[s] to remain a part of all the exciting shifts that are happening here. Northfield, Minnesota and the Midwest region are leading the way toward a just, clean energy transition. The City of Northfield Strategic Plan and Climate Action Plan are very forward-thinking and holistic. It’s an exciting time to be involved in climate and sustainability initiatives.”

Mitch Miller, the Maintenance Manager at Carleton, spoke on what it has been like to work with Larson during his ten years at Carleton. He highlighted the projects that they have worked on together — notably the geothermal project, which was completed in 2021 when all high pressure steam was eliminated — as well as the ways he has seen her position grow. 

In regard to her impact on the position, Miller said that “as technology has changed, we’ve changed how we do things, what we do. It’s certainly grown a lot. You look at the programs that she’s started, the waste programs, and now with this geothermal project, she’s giving tours to everyone from all across the country and in the region. That’s all part of what she’s developed and what she’s grown into.”

Beck Woollen ’23, Student Manager at the Sustainability Office and a member of the Energy and Data Team, also underscored the importance of Larson’s role in the geothermal project.

“She’s like the Michael Jordan of sustainability in the college and university world,” Woollen said. “Everything from the second wind turbine to basically being the visionary behind our 

campus geothermal project…that was all Martha.”

Larson also highlighted the Utility Master Plan as an initiative that she was proud of. Often referred to as simply the “Geothermal Project” on campus, the project led to Carleton’s shift away from steam heating to geothermal heating and cooling. 

In addition to her pride in the project itself, Larson said “I was honored to support all of the outreach, presentation, education and research opportunities that came with that. I especially loved our End of Steam celebration last year, which honored the legacy of the past while ushering in a new era. Installing and managing commercial-scale wind turbines is also a fun thing to have on my resume. Working with the Sustainability Assistants (STAs) over the years has also been an extremely fulfilling experience. Many of them have gone on to do great things in climate and sustainability fields.”

Woollen also discussed Larson’s role in shaping education surrounding sustainability at Carleton, citing an ongoing project that involves sifting through the energy data surrounding buildings on campus. This project has been undertaken for the better part of a decade, and Woollen commented on the faith and trust that Larson places in her student workers. Specifically, he noted that he was able to meet with representatives of the energy companies they were working with in his first term as a sustainability assistant, citing this as an experience that he isn’t sure he would have had at Carleton without Larson. 

He said that “she’s down to earth and is very accessible, and loves teaching the students things. [My] knowledge of sustainability, who [I’ve] become as an environmentalist, [I] owe such a large part of that to Martha.”

Both Miller and Woollen referenced Larson’s role on the Environmental Action Committee (EAC). Woollen touched upon the EAC’s role in reexamining Carleton’s Climate Action Plan. 

He said that “Martha had an instrumental role in advocating for a broader sustainability plan, that’s not just about counting carbon, stuff like that, which I think, is the easy thing to do, especially with her background in energy management, but I think she made a really conscious effort to make sure that Carleton was honoring sustainability in a more robust sense”

Woollen added to this, describing the environment Larson created for student’s on the committee. He noted a set of eight workshops that they held in the 2020-2021 academic year and the role that Larson gave students in direct contribution to prepping materials and being actively involved.

“She’s always been great at leading meetings, making sure that everyone feels included and has a chance to speak, which especially as a student, was kind of tough at first. She made me feel really welcome,” Woollen said. “She’s been really great about giving students the opportunity to contribute to the climate action plan review process.”

Larson also spoke on the Sustainability Assistant (STA) program, its strengths on Carleton’s campus and their role in driving Carleton’s sustainability efforts. When asked about the STA program following the transition in leadership, she stated, “I hope that program survives this transition, although I’m not sure where it will land if campus sustainability moves out of Facilities. The current STAs are very experienced and capable, so I know they’ll be able to manage themselves until a decision is made. When I arrived, the STAs were managing themselves in very much the same way. They were my number one source of information; they truly trained me when I first arrived at Carleton.”

Miller also expressed gratitude for Larson’s close relationship with her coworkers and the ways in which their departments are intertwined.

In reference to the start of the geothermal plan at Carleton, he said that “it doesn’t matter what it is, what it’s about, we could just sit down and bounce ideas back and forth.”

Outside of the geothermal plan, Miller commented on other projects that they have taken on together. “Numerous lighting projects, mechanical projects, building conversions, the chapel…we’ve worked very much side by side together. She’s the project manager of sustainability and I run the maintenance department, so it’s very much intertwined.”

Looking forward, Miller commented on the future of the projects that he and Larson worked closely on, specifically their goals to transition the campus to completely low-temperature water. “We have a pattern established on how to do it,”  he said, “the pattern can be applied once a building goes into renovation.”

Larson commented on the future of the strategic plan and the updated Climate Action Plan (CAP) following her transition out of Carleton, as well as the importance of staff support in the continuing of current programs, such as materials reuse and waste division program.

She said that “I think Carleton’s campus sustainability programs have evolved to a point where they need to live in a more central location within the campus org chart. Each department and division has a role to play — from food systems to air travel to curriculum and more. I think Carleton will find a way to create a CAP 2.0 that is more holistic, one that engages multiple departments with true ownership over campus sustainability initiatives.”

Woollen also expressed hope for the future and confidence in potential new leadership following Larson’s departure, which comes shortly after the departure of Alex Miller, the Sustainability Program Coordinator, earlier this year.

In regard to future projects, Woollen said that “To get to 0% [carbon emissions], we’re going to need another piece or two of large innovation, whether it’s a solar garden, more sustainable refrigeration or developing our carbon offset policy… somebody who has the same innovative spirit that Martha has is something that I’m really excited for.”

He also highlighted the personal connections that Larson has built with the students, as well as community involvement.

“Martha is one of the hardest working people that I know at Carleton, but she consistently makes time to go above and beyond to contribute to sustainability efforts in the city. If there’s a volunteer needed on Earth Day or someone needed to help with the city’s Climate Action Plan, it feels like she’s always first in line,” he said. “Because of that, Carleton has been better off, and Northfield has been better off. Just environmentally, our partnership has gotten so much better over the past ten years,”

Larson expressed a similar sentiment and said, “I’ll truly miss the sense of teamwork and camaraderie I feel within the Facilities department and STAs. I’ll miss all of my friends and collaborators and the beauty of the campus setting. But I’ll still be cheering from the sidelines, knowing Carleton will continue to do amazing things and make us all proud.”

“She knew what needed to be done, and she wasn’t afraid to try and tackle it, ” Miller said. “We’re gonna miss her, and I wish her the best. It’s been a good 10 years.” 

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