Campaign coverage in Environment and Energy Daily (and important issue news source!) -- mentions Clemson, Missouri S&T, University of Iowa and the national campaign.
HIGHER EDUCATION: Colleges search for the right gear to shift into 'carbon neutral' (02/28/2011)
Joey Peters, E&E reporter
In the past few years, colleges and universities across the country have made goals to become "carbon neutral." Now many are discovering out how difficult that goal really is.
Nearly a decade of preparations and plans at the University of Minnesota, Morris, were supposed to make the campus carbon neutral by the end of last year. But now its students and officials realize things are more complicated than that.
|Artist's drawing of a Colby College heating plant to be powered by dead wood.|
"The more we understood about carbon, the more we understood we'd have great difficulty saying we're carbon neutral," said Lowell Rasmussen, the university's vice chancellor for finance and facilities.
The campus, a public version of a small, private liberal arts college, put its first wind turbine up in 2005 and just erected the second wind turbine, which should start producing power at the beginning of March. Together, they're expected to generate 70 percent of electricity for the 1-million-square-foot campus while 60 percent of the power they produce goes back onto the grid.
Morris also has had a biomass gasifier plant up and running since late last fall. So far, the school has used it to burn cornstalks, prairie grass and wood chips, but Rasmussen is still finishing up research on fuel. He said it took 18 months to figure out that fuel density, fuel moisture and fuel uniformity had a great deal to do with which fuels could work best.
Morris is in western Minnesota, an area swarmed by miles of flat prairies and not close to oil or coal sources. But a lot of agriculture surrounds the area, and it can provide sources for fuel. The campus is planning to work on contracts for fuel sources this summer. Rasmussen said the biomass gasifier will, at peak levels, produce 80 percent of the school's heating and cooling.
The campus also uses 32 solar panels. Could all this add up to carbon neutrality, if not today, then maybe sometime in the near future?
"I think we can say we produce more renewable energy than we use," Rasmussen said. "It's just complex. I'm not sure we could ever say we're completely carbon neutral."
Since the state has a renewable energy standard, the Morris-produced alternative energy going back to the grid gets claimed by the utilities, not the campus.
Changing your old heating system? The Sierra Club wants to help
One measure of how seriously schools are taking carbon neutrality could be the Climate Commitment, a document that gives college presidents a framework for campuses to follow that presumably leads to carbon neutrality. It involves taking emissions inventories, setting a target date to become climate neutral and making short-term action plans to reduce greenhouse gases, among others. To date, more than 600 U.S. colleges and universities have signed onto it. But these amount to first steps.
Phasing out coal could be the next step. The Sierra Club has been working on that for a year and a half through its "Campuses Beyond Coal" initiative. Nine campuses, many of them big state universities, have made commitments so far. Last week, Clemson University was the most recent to take the pledge.
Sierra Club's methods to promote this seem to be fluid. Sometimes student groups already seeking to rid their college from coal come to the Sierra Club for help, said Kim Teplitzky, coordinator of the initiative. Other times, the Sierra Club identifies and sends out staff to campuses with coal plants.
And then comes the hard part: figuring out what sustainable, carbon-free fuels to switch to.
Some schools have figured it out for themselves, Teplitzky said, pointing to the Missouri University of Science and Technology, which picked a geothermal solution.
But there are cases where school administrations came seeking advice. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill -- one of the schools committed to phasing out coal -- is working with the Sierra Club's campus energy task force to come up with carbon-free solutions, Teplitzky said.
"Some of the challenges simply lie in the fact that a lot of these plants are old," she said. "The students are asking to change a big part of the infrastructure."
She's expecting U.S. EPA to come out with a rule soon that would raise the costs of keeping older coal plants on campus and prompt them to switch to renewable fuels.
Colby tries to kick its addiction to heating oil
The Sierra Club recommends switching to geothermal energy as one carbon-free alternative. With biomass plants, fuel switching becomes a bit more complicated.
|The University of Minnesota, Morris, has had a long learning curve with this plant, which can burn cornstalks and prairie grass. Photo courtesy of the university.|
"Biomass is certainly tricky," Teplitzky said. "It really depends where you're getting [the fuel] and how you're using it."
Colby College in Maine has a goal of being carbon neutral by 2015. It's also turning to biomass to help achieve that goal.
Currently, the small, private liberal arts campus is very dependent on foreign oil, said Pat Murphy, the college's physical plant director. That's because like Morris, Colby isn't close to fossil fuel sources. The campus is currently laying the groundwork for deciding on a fuel, Murphy said. She's looking into forest waste products and trying to keep the supply within a 50-mile radius, she said. Colby is planning to keep living wood off-limits.
But burning wood as an alternative fuel raises a question: Isn't it still polluting? Last summer, the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences released a study concluding that biomass solutions were not carbon neutral over short periods of time. Focusing specifically on forest waste, the study found that burning dead wood leads to temporary increases in carbon dioxide emissions before they're brought down.
This is because wood is not as dense in energy as fossil fuels, said Manomet President John Hagan.
"The good news is trees grow back and coal doesn't," he said. "Over time, forests will grow back and recover the CO2 that's been emitted."
Calculating the 'debt period' of dead wood
This could take anywhere from 15 years to a century, Hagan said, but it depends heavily on the type of wood used. If a biomass plant uses only waste wood, as Colby plans to, the "debt" period of emitting more greenhouse gases than before will be short. Cutting down living trees would extend this period.
The study says the immediate benefit of biomass depends on whether it's a heating or electric plant, along with the type of fuel it's replacing. The Colby plant will be used for heating and replaces oil, which the study says can start reducing emissions after five years.
In the long run, using dead wood as biomass fuel pays off, Hagan said. It may never lead to carbon neutrality, but he's concluded that's not necessarily the point.
"You don't need to be carbon neutral to be climate friendly. You just need to be better than fossil fuels," Hagan said.
At Colby, a consultant hired to help the school qualify for grants from Efficiency Maine found that the biomass plant would reduce carbon emissions by 13,500 tons a year. Another calculation, made through Clean Air-Cool Planet, had Colby reducing carbon emissions by more than 9,500 tons a year. Murphy said the college expects to see some emission reductions by later this year.
While disagreements over biomass's ability to help the climate exist, a stronger reason for its growing popularity could be its ability to support local economies.
The University of Iowa, which hasn't committed to carbon neutrality, uses oat hulls from a nearby Quaker Oats facility for its biomass fuel. Since the university spends $10 million a year on outside fuel, much of the reasoning behind using biomass lies with local fuel sources. The large campus has two coal boilers. It added biomass oat hulls to one of them in 2003 and has plans to add wood chip fuel to the other soon, said Ferman Milster, associate director of campus power plant.
Milster estimates that 11 percent of the energy currently produced on campus is renewable. It will be two years before it can burn a significant amount of biomass, he said. Much of the reasoning for the slower pace is because the school runs one of the biggest hospitals in the Midwest.
"If we lose a fuel source, we're putting people's lives at risk," Milster said. "So it's important that we have multiple fuel sources."
The school has a goal to make 40 percent of its energy renewable by 2020.
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