Late to the game on climate action, U-M begins work to catch up

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 4:30pm

Starting in 2008 and 2009, a wave of universities mobilized around the nation to aim for carbon-neutral campuses. The University of Michigan, however, lagged behind until early October, when University President Mark Schlissel announced his goal to set a trajectory toward carbon neutrality, though details of how and when this goal will be met have yet to be released. Within a few months, Schlissel plans to appoint a commission to develop strategies and a timeline for carbon neutrality.

But in October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also published a report that predicted a high probability of food shortages, wildfires and coral reef depletion by 2040. The warning of an imminent future without essential resources spurred many ongoing efforts at international, national and local levels, including at universities, to reaffirm their commitment to reduce the effects anthropogenic climate change.

Business fifth-year senior Grant Faber is the president of Students for Clean Energy, a group of undergraduate students who advocate for and educate students on renewable energy around campus. Faber and his student circle are looking forward to the work of the carbon neutrality commission, but are urging Schlissel to appoint individuals who are committed to pursuing effective and timely initiatives in response to climate change.

“The success of this commitment will ultimately come down to whom President Schlissel appoints to the carbon neutrality commission, so it is imperative that we push for the proper individuals to be included,” Faber said.

The University was one of the last Big 10 schools to set carbon emissions goals. The current goal, set in 2011, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2025. In comparison, Michigan State University set a goal in 2009 to reduce emissions 65 percent below its 2010 levels by 2030, and Ohio State University’s goal set in 2011 is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Concerns over the University’s lack of aggression on emissions reductions heightened when the University announced it will expand its central power plant, an $80 million dollar investment approved by the U-M Board of Regents in March 2017 that will facilitate the installation of a natural gas turbine. Student activists and environmental groups protested the heavy investment in a non-renewable energy source, but the University contends the turbine would reduce emissions to half of its 2025 goal.

Andrew Berki, director of the Office of Campus Sustainability, echoed this logic, emphasizing the transition to natural gas is still a step toward cleaner energy. As of fall 2017, the University had reached 20 percent of its carbon emissions goal and the expansion would boost its progress to 50 percent. Berki also explained how Schlissel initiating steps toward carbon neutrality would be pivotal in efforts to take action against climate change.

“With the central power plant turbine upgrade and pursuit of a Power Purchase Agreement for renewable energy, we expect to reach the current goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025 well ahead of schedule,” he said. “The announcement by President Schlissel to form a commission tasked with developing a plan to put U of M on a path toward carbon neutrality is a major commitment by our institution.”

Michael Garfield, director of the Ecology Center, a local nonprofit, worked closely with students to think critically about the power plant expansion and explained how his work centers on advocating for mitigation initiatives in Ann Arbor and Detroit. According to Garfield, 25 percent of all carbon emissions in Ann Arbor are generated by University operations. He applauded Schlissel’s commitment to carbon neutrality.

“The University, given how big an institution it is, it could make a dramatic statement about innovative and visionary approaches to address climate change if it takes big action,” he said. “There has been a lot of analysis that has found that to date, the University hadn’t been doing this, and they had lagged behind compared to most other universities in the Big 10 and major universities.”

Garfield highlighted the importance of working with the city of Ann Arbor to reach this goal, but also mentioned the difficulty that comes with drafting and coordinating specific plans with the city.

“The devil’s in the details, and we’re eagerly awaiting their plans to see how they’ll do and define its scope,he said. “Another important aspect is that in his statement, President Schlissel said that they’ll try to reach this goal in partnership with the surrounding community, and that makes a lot of sense in concept, but in practice it’s really hard to do. If they can make good on that commitment, it’ll be another really great achievement.”

University alum Melissa Stults translated her Ph.D on urban planning and resilience to climate change directly into her current work as the sustainability and innovations manager for the city of Ann Arbor. In its Climate Action Plan, Ann Arbor commits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025 and 90 percent by 2050. According to Stults, the most significant barrier for the city is a budget that will support both mitigation and adaptation efforts, noting Ann Arbor was already seeing some effects of climate change.

“It is a lot easier to pass a resolution than it is to fund activities that actually lead to carbon neutrality,” she said. “This is a critical first step where we have to move and move fairly intentionally but quickly towards actions that actually drive our emissions down. But simultaneously, we also have to prepare for the effects that are already here. Let’s not forget that we have a 44 percent increase in extreme rainfall during spring rain events here in Ann Arbor.”

Projects currently underway in the city include the Green Rental Housing program, a policy that would require property owners to maintain a minimum standard of energy efficiency before receiving rental licenses. The initiative holds great potential in the city, incentivizing the estimated half of total housing units in Ann Arbor that are rentals. This project is accompanied by several other energy efficiency, renewable energy and educative initiatives, which, according to Stults, can make a significant difference when combined with a commitment to carbon neutrality.

“We want to make sure energy usage just becomes part of the conversation when you live in Ann Arbor,” she said. “Things have changed with this commitment to carbon neutrality; the University has taken climate change seriously, but we have to have sustained commitment towards that, both at the city and at the University level.”

On campus, student groups such as the U-M Climate Action Movement and Students for Clean Energy advocate for more ambitious goals at meetings of the University’s Board of Regents and the Ann Arbor City Council. LSA junior Kristen Hayden cited her involvement in various on campus sustainability-oriented groups such as Clean Wolverines, Epsilon Eta and CAM as venues through which she and other students have mobilized and advocated for climate action.

According to Hayden, while CAM is excited for the University’s official trajectory toward carbon neutrality, accountability and data-driven initiatives are keys to success. She referred to the 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee, a commission tasked with advising the president on greenhouse gas emission policy based on scientific data. Hayden explained they were ultimately ineffective because the University did not follow its recommendations.

“We’re passing resolutions through the various student governments asking for a more stringent deadline on carbon neutrality and a more transparent process in making the commission that will deal with it,” Hayden said. “In the past, the Greenhouse Gas Commission has provided good feedback on issues but their recommendations were not taken into account in many cases. For instance, they said the natural gas plant would not be considered the action of a climate action leader and we are still building it.”

Hayden also emphasized the importance of student participation in sustainability decisions and committees. She cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s terms as reference for the University’s aims to decrease greenhouse gas emissions: Scope 1 defined as direct emissions from sources the University owns or controls and scope 2 being indirect emissions the University owns or controls.

“Overall, we’re asking for carbon neutrality in scopes 1 and 2 by 2035 with markers at different years between now and then; a significant student presence in decision-making, for instance, several students on the council to give the commission teeth or make sure its decisions have binding impacts on the University; and to make sure our efforts are collaborative and replicable across our community.”

Hayden’s thoughts on campus sustainability goals in general echoed those of the stakeholders in city government: The size of the University, though sometimes cumbersome when following through on commitments, can be utilized to make sustainability initiatives large-scale.

“The U needs to be more aggressive in other realms of its sustainability as well. It seems very important to me to have more effort towards reaching the goals we already have in place while making sure they’re still scientifically-founded and will push us towards greater sustainability sooner,” she said. “For instance, the goal to reduce landfill waste by 40 percent is honorable, but we’re only 3 percent of the way there. The excuse is often that we are such a large university so it’s impossible for us to expect to reach goals like that; but the larger the University, the more money and resources, including research and passionate people it has access to. I’m sure we could be making more progress if we started pushing towards the goals.”

With regard to the central power plant expansion, Faber explained how economics drove the decision because of the low price of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing.

“Onsite steam and electricity generation at the CPP is cheaper relative to buying these resources from DTE (The local electricity company). But also, DTE’s 2017 electricity fuel mix was 64.70 percent coal, which leads to significantly higher emissions than burning natural gas,” Faber said. “So the expansion will both save U of M money and cut our emissions, and a lower amount of emissions will then require a smaller power purchase agreement to offset most or all of our emissions.”  

Faber said Washtenaw County is not very compatible with wind power and lacks the capability to store solar energy on a large scale, a problem especially prevalent during the winter months when the University would likely turn back to coal-fueled energy. Thus, the power plant expansion, according to Faber, is currently the most realistic investment before alternative energies, such as geothermal systems, storage of solar energy and micro-wind turbines, can be researched and adopted.

“While there are many in my circles who scoffed at the expansion, I understand why the University rubber-stamped it, and I do believe that it will make it easier for us to get to carbon neutrality if paired with a corresponding and well-structured power purchase agreement,” Faber said.