University of Michigan Behind on Sustainability Goals

ANN ARBOR- There’s a stout rectangular building hidden on campus. Made of brick, it’s two stories high and found tucked away between dorms packed with students and large research buildings outlined with large glass windows. The only conspicuous parts are two towers, barely taller than the buildings that surround them, pumping out steam. This is the University of Michigan’s Central Power Plant, and it might hold the key for the university to reach its sustainability goals.

The University of Michigan has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 to 25% below 2006 levels, according to its Office of Campus Sustainability. And according to their data, the university is having trouble getting to that baseline. The total emissions for 2014, at 707,424 metric tons of carbon dioxide, is higher than it was in 2006. “If you’re talking about [sustainability] education and research, we do fairly well, but if you talk about how we actually operate the campus and walking the talk there’s no question that U of M is behind,” says Mike Shriberg, formerly with the University’s Graham Sustainability Institute and now an Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation.

Growth is the current reason the emission levels are what they are, says Rich Robben, Executive Director of Plant Operations at the university. Since 2006, the university has added more than 6.5 million square feet of new buildings. 98% of the university’s energy usage comes from heating and cooling buildings; thus, as the university grows, its total emissions increase dramatically, according to Robben.

Robben says that the challenge is to find a solution that offsets this growth; this is where the power plant comes in.

The University of Michigan generates about one third of its electricity via natural gas at the Central Power Plant, according Drew Horning, Acting Director at Graham.  The rest it buys from DTE, the local utility. 74% of DTE’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants, which is significantly more polluting than natural gas.  So, per unit of energy, the plant on campus produces less greenhouse gases than DTE.

The university’s President Mark Schlissel recently announced that two additional turbines will be added to the power plant, increasing its total energy capacity. This will mean the university is purchasing less coal-based electricity. The effect will be a net decrease of 145,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the announcement.

From there, additional increases in building efficiency would further decrease emissions toward the 2025 goal. “I think that we have a good [sustainability] plan going forward,” says Robben.

Others disagree. Switching from coal to natural gas “is really just the trend that’s been going all over the country. It’s kind of U of M catching up with national trends,” says Shriberg, giving an example of how the university lacks innovation.

As a contrasting example, Shriberg mentions the University of Michigan’s in-state rival, Michigan State University, where he says they will be building the largest solar panel array in the state.

Wolfgang Bauer, Senior Consultant to Michigan State’s Executive Vice President, confirms the size of the project. Bauer says that Michigan State chose this project because they have an explicit goal to use more renewable sources to produce energy for their campus, eventually gaining carbon neutrality.

The University of Michigan has no such formal goal, which is why Shriberg critiques it when compared to Michigan State. He says that the University of Michigan errs because it still focuses on fossil fuels. The correct direction is renewable energy while lowering total energy consumed, Shriberg says.

He adds, “It’s not that complicated. Places are figuring out how to do this. It’s really more a matter of institutional commitment than complexity.”

Robben says that the University of Michigan does not have the infrastructure in place to rely that heavily on renewables. He adds that any construction that would be necessary is heavily regulated.

From a financial standpoint, the state of Michigan is, “renewable energy challenged,” says Horning.  As an example, Horning compares the sunlight-scarce Michigan winters to states in the southwest like Arizona. “It’s not impossible, but the economics are harder.”

Both Bauer and Shriberg comment on the “conservative inertia” that the University of Michigan, and to a larger extent, all colleges, seems to have. This past July, the university’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee, which both Robben and Horning were part of, reviewed the university’s goals.

The committee recommended going from a 25% to a 30% reduction. Horning says this goal was proposed to challenge the university to set the bar above what the Obama Administration set for the U.S. – at a 28% reduction.

Schlissel did not accept this proposal. Asked why the goal was not accepted, Rick Fitzgerald, spokesperson for the university, said, “The University is working toward the existing greenhouse gas reduction goal of 25 percent, and we have a process for review that will allow us to adjust along the way.”

Robben says that the original goal, by design, did not account for growth, making it a financially aggressive target. “I believe the leadership of the University recognized this fact and did not wish to complicate an already difficult target.”

As the cold, gray backdrop of winter in Ann Arbor descends upon the campus, with students bundled up in parkas, the steam from the smokestacks of the Central Power Plant becomes more visible. And as the university plans to add the turbines, only more steam will billow out of the towers.

“It seems that the new turbines are basically the entire strategy to make the goals,” says Shriberg. “They’re focused on constraints, not opportunities.”

Over at Michigan State, Bauer says, “I will feely admit that I don’t think that [Michigan State’s goals are] actually doable to the degree that we have envisioned.” When explaining why Michigan State took on such challenging goals, goals that might not even be met, he mentions trains in Austria.

“If you take a train in Austria you find that it’s always late. You ask yourself, ‘why the heck do they even bother printing train schedules?’”

He answers, “Otherwise, how would you know how late you are?”

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