University moves forward in plans to reduce GHG amidst construction, campus expansion

Thursday, January 24, 2019 - 8:32pm

Construction projects and campus expansion pose concerns among student organizations about reaching the University of Michigan’s goal of a 25 percent reduction in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

LSA junior Julian Hansen is the founder of the U-M Climate Action Movement, a student organization dedicated to pushing for campus carbon neutrality. According to Hansen, the power plant expansion poses concerns for reducing emissions.

“Since the initial announcement, there has not been much very vocal progress,” Hansen said. “But one thing is the expansion of the Central Power Plant, which Schlissel says will take us halfway to our 2025 goal, but all in all we are a bit nervous about the expansion because it has been shown a lot once you really heavily invest we will be unlikely to divest in a time that will fulfill CAM’s goal.”

Engineering junior Logan Vear, Climate Action Movement member, further expanded on the concerns of the power plant expansion.

“We are a little skeptical for us committing to a 25 percent reduction and saying that we will get there by doing this central campus power plant expansion,” Vear said. “The reason for that is given that this would commit us to using natural gas directly on our campus, and that could potentially lock us in for more years than we would hope, to later inhibit us to potentially getting to that carbon neutrality goal. The campus plant expansion is somewhat opposing to a commitment to carbon neutrality.”

According to Andrew Berki, director of the Office of Campus Sustainability, the University has found success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions despite significant campus expansion.

“From 2006 to 2018, we really invested in energy conservation in our buildings on campus,” Berki said. “We’ve seen a reduction of 50,000 metric tons over that time. Over that same time period, our campus has grown in infrastructure over 20 percent, so if you think about that, we’ve really made tremendous strides in energy conservation in existing buildings and new construction by mitigating carbon creep, even through tremendous campus growth.”

Berki said measures such as gathering energy and water conservation reports, as well as calling for energy audits, are considered when planning any campus building or expansion project.

“All construction projects mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through energy conservation measures and water conservation measures,” Berki said. “We use a number of these different both statewide regulations and internal regulations and policies we’ve put in place to try and make sure our buildings are built as efficiently as possible.”

After the announcement of the Central Power Plant expansion in October, Berki said the project would push greenhouse gas reduction efforts to about halfway toward their 25 percent decrease goal.

“It takes time to develop strategies and to get those strategies approved, and I’m happy to say we have a couple strategies that we really think are going to get us to that goal actually ahead of schedule,” Berki said. “One of those is the expansion of our central power plant where we’re going to add a 15-megawatt turbine to increase natural gas, increase the capacity of our natural gas plant, and reduce the amount of electricity that we’re buying from DTE, so that is going to get us about halfway towards our goal.”

In a Jan. 13 interview, University President Mark Schlissel expanded on the University’s utilization of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program, a rating system that looks at the energy efficiency of building designs. The LEED system attempts to create efficient, cost-saving green buildings.

“We’ve established energy efficiency standards for our buildings and we’ve established a commitment to use the LEED certification program to shoot for a certain minimum level, if not exceed a certain level, of LEED certification, all of which are designed to diminish the energy needs of a building.”

According to Vear, the LEED program highlights a weakness in the University’s efforts to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“When it comes to our expansion on campus in general and all the construction going on — a lot of that currently, our standard is only LEED silver for sustainability measures for any new construction, and that has been demonstrated over the past few years to not be the most aggressive and the most beneficial measure to be taking in order to truly be sustainable and reduce emissions effectively,” Vear said.

According to Berki, Schlissel’s announced commission to create a timeline and distinct goals for the University to reach carbon neutrality is the next big step for the University’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think that commission is being formed right now, so the membership scope and schedule of that commission is being formed by the president, and we expect an announcement very soon, what that's going to look like, and that’s really the next step,” Berki said. “So that commission is going to be tasked with developing strategies and plans to submit to him on how to put the University on a track towards carbon neutrality.”

Berki also said the commission would be a benefit not only to the University, but to the nationwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a whole.

“The president has made it clear that this commission is not only going to look at our own campus footprint, but it's going to be tasked with developing technologies that can be transferable beyond the University of Michigan borders,” Berki said.

Schlissel said the University is in a perfect position to aid others with the findings of his new commission.

“At an academic institution, we’re in a great spot to solve the problem for us in a way that others can take what we’ve learned and come up with and tested and use it for themselves,” Schlissel said.

Despite construction and campus expansion, Berki said he still expects to achieve their goal of 25 percent reduced emissions by early 2025.

“We’re going to meet our goal ahead of schedule,” Berki said. “I would say early 2020s, and the next step is to figure out how to do more, how to get on the path towards neutrality, and the commission is going to be taken with doing so.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the Central Power Plant expansion project would include a 50-megawatt turbine rather than a 15-megawatt turbine.