Environmental group raises concerns over new natural gas turbine

Monday, September 10, 2018 - 7:40pm

While no construction has begun, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality greenlit the project over the summer by granting the University an air permit for the natural gas turbine.

While no construction has begun, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality greenlit the project over the summer by granting the University an air permit for the natural gas turbine. Buy this photo
Cameron Hunt/Daily

With a new natural gas turbine in the works at the University of Michigan, environmentalists have expressed concerns over the University's continued investment in fossil fuel-based energy. 

The Board of Regents approved an $80 million expansion to the Central Power Plant in March 2017, which serves as the main source of heat and energy for the Central and Medical Campus buildings. The project includes the addition of a natural gas turbine to the plant, which the University says will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80,000 metric tons a year.

According to the University press release last year, the installation would help get the University halfway to its 2025 goal of reducing campus emissions by 25 percent.

“Our targeted greenhouse gas emissions reduction is an ambitious goal and this project marks a significant step in the right direction as well as providing a sound financial projection for the university,” Kevin Hegarty, chief financial officer, said.

While no construction has begun, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality greenlit the project over the summer by granting the University an air permit for the natural gas turbine. The permit was granted after a required public hearing in August.

LSA junior Timothy Arvan attended the hearing, along with a handful of faculty and community members, though he recalled no more than 15 people present. Arvan learned of the natural gas turbine over the summer while interning at the Ecology Center, a non-profit environmental organization based in Ann Arbor.

The group was notified earlier in the summer that the University had submitted a request for an air permit, and began to raise questions over why the University was making such a long-term investment into fossil fuel-based energy.

To voice the Ecology Center’s concerns, Arvan penned a public comment to MDEQ on the organization’s behalf highlighting the shortcomings of the University’s proposal and asking the department to “suspend its assessment of the Permit to Install in question.”

Arvan’s letter discussed the lack of transparency in the Board of Regents’ decision-making process, the project’s commitment to fossil fuels over renewable energy and the lack of the University’s environmental leadership compared to its peer institutions.

“The problem here is that they haven’t looked at relative alternatives,” Arvan said. “So what could they do instead of spending $80 million on a natural gas turbine? Could they have explored renewable energy? Could they have explored various alternatives that could’ve been better for the environment and maybe even economically?”

Given that MDEQ has no regulatory power over the University and is compelled to grant the air permit if the University meets predetermined criteria for natural gas turbines, Arvan said the purpose of the public comment was to express the Ecology Center’s concerns and make the issue known publicly.

Arvan is concerned by the air permit hearing being held over the summer when the bulk of the student body was out of town.

“I think it’s by design that this thing kind of flew under the radar,” Arvan said.

Given the $80 million cost of the project, Arvan insists transparency is key.

“One of our concerns is just that this is a huge magnitude of money,” Arvan said. “It’s clearly a big decision and it seems like the university did a lot of the decision-making in private without consulting anybody in the community.”

The central concern Arvan and the Ecology Center have with the natural gas turbine is that it commits the University to rely on natural gas for decades. Meanwhile, in a fast-evolving market for renewable energy, more sustainable options could become more affordable over the course of that time.

“Renewables are becoming more and more and more effective,” Arvan said. “This plant is basically going to have a lifetime of 20 years or longer, so what this project is is it forces the university to commit to natural gas for a really long time. In that time, we don’t really know the extent to which renewables might become even more competitive than natural gas.”

LSA Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor Adam Simon is “not absolutely convinced” that the upgrade is the smartest decision for UM. He agrees with Arvan that the turbine commits the university to natural gas for too long, but pointed out that there isn’t a consensus within the environmental community about whether natural gas is more sustainable than coal.

“While it is true that at the point of combustion, natural gas emits less greenhouse gases than does coal, that is only when emissions are counted at the point of combustion,” Simon wrote. “During mining and transport of natural gas, we know that fugitive leaks of natural gas occur where natural gas leaks to the atmosphere.”

Simon said that the university does not count potential fugitive emissions of natural gas, which is standard practice. And while natural gas is cheap at the moment, Simon said its price is volatile, and could become economically unsustainable.

University officials stand behind the environmental sustainability of the Central Power Plant expansion, touting its improvement over current energy generation.

“The new 15-megawatt combustion turbine to be added to the power plant will reduce the university's overall greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 80,000 metric tons per year,” University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily. “That is the equivalent of removing more than 17,000 passenger vehicles from the road annually.”

Broekhuizen said the University is looking into renewable energy options for projects other than the Central Power Plant expansion.

“Separate from this project, the university is pursuing renewable energy options through power purchase agreements in accordance with the 2015 report,” Broekhuizen wrote. “This fall the university will further evaluate renewable-energy options as the next step to achieve a 25 percent reduction in GHG ahead of the 2025 goal.”

In Arvan’s public comment, however, he asserts the University should be doing more to pioneer in the field of environmental sustainability.

“In this age of heightened politicization of the environment, national leadership on issues of climate change and energy must come from universities; it is both the fundamental purpose and moral imperative of universities across the globe to cultivate groundbreaking collaborative research, encourage innovative solutions, and inspire the next generation of thinkers to unleash their potential,” Arvan wrote.

Arvan also pointed out the University’s decision to build a natural gas turbine stood out when compared to the efforts of the other big research institutions on environmental sustainability.

“If you look at some of the similar, comparable universities to U-M, they’re not doing this kind of thing,” Arvan said. “There’s nobody building big natural gas turbines right now. People are looking at carbon taxes on their campuses. People are looking at renewable projects and kind of investing in the future of the energy landscape.”