Students gathered in the University Organizing Center on Tuesday, Oct. 9 to discuss plans to protest the construction of a cogeneration power plant near the Freeman Athletic Center. The administration began planning to build a second power plant on campus in reaction to the October 2011 blackout. Cogeneration, the process of generating electricity and then trapping the heat created as a byproduct, could be used to power and heat a portion of the University in the case of another power outage.
“It has more to do with safety than anything else,” said President Michael Roth. “People pointed out to me that in the storm of last fall we were lucky that it hadn’t been February [and] very, very cold conditions. So we’ve been exploring backup plans for power that would be environmentally responsible.”
During last year’s blackout, the University’s existing plant was out of commission for a short period of time before it went into “island mode,” which is when a generator runs without the support of the town’s power grid.
“The administration is primarily interested in supporting our ability to operate in ‘island mode’ in the increasingly likely event of a blackout like last year,” said Green Fund Committee Chair Adam Brudnick ’13.
Parents’ strong negative reactions to the University’s prolonged blackout last year prompted the administration to take action to prevent another similar occurrence.
“A lot of parents were asking me why we didn’t have backup generators for every dorm, and those are really very expensive and tend to be very dirty forms of energy production,” Roth said.
At the Oct. 9 meeting, one of the students’ main concerns was the lack of communication between the administration and the student body regarding the construction.
“The major issue about the construction of this power plant is that it is a huge capital investment for which the planning process went forward with absolutely no student input,” said Evan Weber ’13, one of the students who organized last Tuesday’s meeting. “The only way I found out about the project was by a comment made in passing at a Sustainability Advisory Group for Environmental Stewardship (SAGES) meeting that I happened to attend.”
Some of the students at the meeting also expressed the concern that the cogeneration plant may not be the cleanest option environmentally.
“To think that we might shortsightedly worsen these emissions in the long run by making this investment as a reaction to an extreme weather event likely linked to climate change seems more than a little backwards,” Weber said.
However, Roth maintained that the construction plans were well-researched by the administration and that a cogeneration power plant may be the University’s best option.
“Cogeneration, especially with the way we’ve looked at it this far, [will] make the plant as clean as possible,” Roth said. “[Cogeneration plants] use less electricity, as I understand it, and in that way you generate savings. We want to invest in a way that is sustainable.”
One positive characteristic of a cogeneration plant is that it will pay for itself in a short period of time and bring in revenue for the University after that period.
“This plant will cost roughly $3,000,000 and [will] generate $350,000 per year, yielding a simple payback period of roughly seven years,” Brudnick said.
As the administration has yet to implement the power plant plans, students are working to delay the construction until the students can consider and discuss the plans.
“So far administrators have been receptive to sharing information and setting up meetings, but no dialogue has really occurred,” Weber said.
Roth said that the administration will definitely consider taking more time to go through with its plans and is interested in looking at more sustainable solutions if students present them.
“It doesn’t have to be now,” Roth said. “Last year was a scary time because of not having enough food and then having no lights in certain areas and no heat. We have 3,000 people, and there’s a certain responsibility to provide basic conditions [for them]. If we need to take more time to think about it we will, but we won’t take more time just for the heck of it.”
The main goal of the students who gathered for last Tuesday’s meeting was to increase dialogue among students and the administration relating to the possible construction. Moving forward, they said that they hope to work with the administration to consider every option before concrete plans are made.
“I want to start a conversation about the power plant with all constituents because students, professors, and other members of the community have been largely left out of the discussion,” Weber said. “Maybe every aspect of this construction project has been considered, but it’s more likely that many different perspectives have been overlooked. With a project this significant, the more eyes you have looking at the issue, the better of a decision you’ll ultimately be able to make.”