Design by Sara Fang

The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.

Have you ever wondered how the University of Michigan generates the power to keep the lights on after hours? The University obtains power through both on-campus generation and local utility providers such as DTE and Consumers Energy. However, this process is undergoing changes as the University moves towards carbon neutrality over the next couple of decades.

To achieve this, the University has set several goals. The University separates its emissions into three main categories — Scope 1, which includes emissions from power generated on campus; Scope 2, which includes emissions from purchased electricity; and Scope 3, which includes indirect emissions from University-sponsored activities like commuting. Based on the University’s carbon neutrality plan, the University will eliminate Scope 1 emissions by 2040 and will offset Scope 2 emissions by 2025. They have also committed to releasing more specific goals for how they plan to eliminate or offset Scope 3 emissions by 2025.

Yet the question remains: How will the University achieve these goals? Here’s a look into how electricity is consumed on the Ann Arbor campus. Flint and Dearborn campuses follow the same climate goals but were not included in this article. 

How power is currently generated

The University currently obtains about 60% of its electricity from purchased sources, while the other 40% comes from on-campus generation, according to Drew Horning, special advisor to the president for carbon neutrality and managing director for the Graham Sustainability Institute,   in an interview with The Michigan Daily. The bulk of the electricity generated on-campus comes from the Central Power Plant (CPP), located adjacent to the Hill Neighborhood.

While walking through the CPP location, plant manager Malcolm Bambling spoke with The Daily about the plant’s focus on reliability and said the University generating its own power ensures they are not entirely dependent on privately-owned utilities. Bambling also described the network of underground tunnels across campus used to transport electricity, steam and hot water. Burying the cables, Bambling explained, helps protect from the elements and are therefore more reliable. 

In January, the University completed an expansion of the CPP, which added a 15-megawatt turbine and replaced the transformers to include a new ring design, allowing the electricity to stay operational even if one transformer fails.

Horning said though the expansion was in the works prior to the University setting its carbon neutrality goals, the upgrade still helps reduce carbon emissions in line with their goals. 

“Relative to the grid mix, (the CPP) is much cleaner,” Horning said. “It’s a combined heat and power plant… the waste heat in a combined heat and power plant is captured and moved through steam tunnels to buildings all over central campus. That was the rationale both to improve the efficiency of our energy system, but also there’s a lot around resilience of the energy system supporting the medical enterprise as redundancy in case power goes out from the grid.” 

U-M alum Zackariah Farah, spokesperson for Ann Arbor for Public Power, said he views the expansion as a short-sighted project that did not listen to feedback from the community. 

“They should not have invested what I believe was over $80 million into expanding a methane-powered power plant,” Farah said. “They didn’t meet with the environmental students who were concerned about this, they just went ahead and said, ‘Well, technically, this will be reducing emissions because we will be reducing our reliance on DTE.’”

The CPP currently relies on natural gas, a fossil fuel, to generate electricity and uses a combined cycle process, which can dramatically increase efficiency compared to a simple steam generator. By increasing power efficiency, Horning said the University can continue running the plant for a longer period of time while keeping carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt hour low. 

The remainder of the power used by the University is obtained from outside sources. Currently, all of the electricity on North Campus, apart from a portion of the North Campus Research Complex (NCRC), is procured from DTE. Central Campus is partially powered by the Central Power Plant and partially powered by procured electricity. 

Currently, the University’s purchased electricity is sourced from a mixture of renewable and nonrenewable sources. The DTE energy mix is composed of about 9.58% renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. In 2021, the University announced it would source 200 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year from wind farms managed by DTE, reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons. In 2022, the University emitted around 228,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in purchased electricity.

The University also plans to decarbonize its transportation fleet as a step toward reducing its Scope 1 emissions. Logistics, Transportation and Parking purchased four electric buses that will be rolled out during 2023.

How power will be generated in the future

To fulfill its primary goal of carbon neutrality through offsetting Scope 2 emissions by 2025, the University issued a request for proposal (RFP) to primarily rely on fully renewable sources by 2025. The RFP, calls for proposals that will be able to provide the Ann Arbor campus with part or all of the 125 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year that the University estimates is not already being sourced from renewable energy. According to the Office of Campus Sustainability’s (OCS) Environmental Metrics, the University purchased about 291 million kilowatt hours of electricity from non-renewable sources in FY 2022.

The University are also purchases renewable energy credits (REC) to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from Scope 2 emissions, or purchased electricity. Each REC is equivalent to one megawatt hour of electricity. According to an email from Horning, the University procured 150,000 RECs in 2022. 

According to the RFP, the University estimated they would need 159,500,000 kilowatt hours per year to fulfill annual procured power requirements using solar or wind power. In the state of Michigan, solar energy produces far fewer kilowatt hours of electricity per year because Michigan has fewer hours of daylight per day than locations closer to the equator. That said, compared to warmer climates, Michigan has a lower average temperature — to which semiconductors, like solar panels, are more efficient.

While solar is overall not as efficient in Michigan as it is in sunnier climates, the University plans to expand solar photovoltaic systems across campus in an RFP to be released later this year.

Engineering senior Brendan Ireland, Sierra Club president, said he wants the University to incorporate more solar power into new construction.

“I think the University should be building solar panels everywhere,” Ireland said. “They should build things like solar panels over parking lots or solar panels on all their roofs.” 

The other primary source of power described in the RFP is wind power. The state of Michigan has an extensive coastline that provides ideal conditions for wind power, which the University used to construct a wind farm in 2021.

The University itself has a separate contract with DTE, which was obtained by The Daily. The agreement mandates that at least 40% of the electricity on campus is purchased from DTE with a capped rate of electricity generated per kilowatt hour. The agreement allows the University to specify the amount of electricity that comes from renewables.

Ireland said direct power is distributed throughout the power grid, and is therefore unable to be allocated to specific buildings on campus. 

“(There are) renewable energy credits that you can buy and sell on the market, which are abstracted,” Ireland said. “It’s not (directly), ‘You’re buying power generated from this solar panel, located here.’ There’s power being generated, and it filters in, and then you pull it out with these credits.”

The CPP also uses a combustion turbine, which can run on different types of gas to generate electricity, including fuel oil and hydrogen. Hydrogen gas can be burned while producing no carbon emissions, though studies have shown that this process can create toxic nitrogen oxide emissions.

The University has also converted the heating and cooling systems in the Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building to clean energy, the rest of the building’s energy sources still come from fossil fuels. The building will be heated and cooled using a geo-exchange system, which will reduce the electricity demand for heating and cooling — similar to the steam tunnels across Central Campus. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, 55% of the energy consumed by a household went toward heating and cooling. A similar geo-exchange system will be constructed in a new North Campus residence hall.

Earlier this year, the University announced $300 million will be going towards green bonds — funds dedicated to “green” capital projects — such as the Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building.  

The University has committed to constructing more geo-exchange sites on North Campus in the future as a part of its North Campus Utility Master Plan. According to Horning, the University plans to implement geo-exchange systems on Central Campus in the future but currently faces issues with land availability and complexities in converting existing buildings.

“Geo-exchange will play a role in our decarbonization strategy for Central Campus, and we are also monitoring the viability of emerging technologies,” Horning wrote to The Daily. “Ultimately, we hope our approach will serve as a roadmap for other institutions with comparable challenges.”

Correction 11/28: Efforts to decarbonize the campus transportation fleet go towards eliminating Scope 1 emissions. RECs are a way that the University lowers its Scope 2 emissions by purchasing electricity that has been generated from renewable sources.

Correction 11/21: The University has committed to releasing their goals for eliminating Scope 3 emissions by 2025, but Scope 3 emissions may not be eliminated by this year. Additionally, burning hydrogen gas can lead to the emission of nitrogen oxides, so it is not a risk free method of generating power.

Daily Staff Reporter Matthew Shanbom can be reached at shanbom@umich.edu.