Power Plant Proposal Not Good for Wesleyan

by Marjorie Dodson, Emma Pattiz, Evan Weber and Virgil Taylor, Dodson, Pattiz, and Weber are Class of 2013. Taylor is Class of 2015.

In a university setting, there are very good reasons for having heat and electricity in an emergency situation (providing shelter to the community, preserving scientific experiments and intellectual property, keeping pipes from freezing, etc.). The University is proposing to construct a new natural gas cogeneration power plant near Freeman Athletic Center. This was proposed in response to a mandate issued by President Roth to minimize the risk of losing academic calendar days in the event of a power outage, like that which occurred as a result of the unexpected winter storm of October 2011. After that event, the administration agreed through WSA negotiation to involve students in Business Continuity planning. However, no students were involved in the currently proposed plans for a new cogeneration plant. On Nov. 17, the Board of Trustees, with guidance from the Finance Committee and the President’s cabinet, quietly voted to approve funding for this new power plant.

We, concerned students, believe this power plant proposal is not good for the Wesleyan Community for a number of logistical, budgetary, and moral reasons. Here’s why:

First, it is a bad decision from a budgetary standpoint. This proposal comes at a time when analyses show the current price of natural gas to be artificially low and to inflate rapidly in the near future. A quick look at Natural Gas futures contracts shows that some estimates have the price doubling within about five years. On top of this, there are massive innovations in the clean technology industries. The clean energy economy is currently growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy and all projections show renewable energy prices continuing to fall. Wesleyan has explored some other possible options and, under their criteria, view this proposal as the “best” available today. Is it necessary that we make this $3.5 million investment now, or does it make more sense to wait a few years before exploring what more innovative emergency power solutions might look like?

Physical Plant projects that this new power plant will, through the efficiencies of cogeneration, lower our greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. The projections are mathematically accurate based off of the numbers they use, but what about the long term? In the past few years natural gas has been branded as a “bridge to the clean energy future,” because natural gas is marketed as having lower carbon emissions than coal or oil. However, natural gas infrastructure investments continue to distract our nation from making the necessary critical investments in our renewable energy infrastructure, which the impending climate crisis demands of us. We believe this new plant would have the same effect here at Wesleyan. This large capital investment disincentivizes the University from making the necessary investments to reach our stated goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

We would now like to further address the claim that natural gas has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels. While this claim is indisputable regarding direct emissions from the combustion of natural gas, it may not be so if you factor in emissions over the lifetime of these energy sources—from extraction to combustion. Over the past several years, various studies have shown that natural gas, extracted through hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” has a significantly higher greenhouse gas footprint than more conventional fossil fuel extraction. The fracking process frequently releases methane, a greenhouse gas more than 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term; there are also additional well-documented lifetime emissions due to leakages of methane from natural gas storage wells. At least one prominent study shows that all natural gas—not just that extracted through hydraulic fracturing—is far worse than coal in terms of lifetime emissions over a 20-year period. This current plan for responding to extreme weather events may in fact contribute to the very climate chaos that has inspired this reaction. To say this is backwards would be an understatement.

Today about 50 percent of natural gas in the U.S. is extracted by fracking. Fracking is extremely destructive at the local-level as well, at times destroying the lives of the communities where the extraction takes place. We encourage you to look into the earthquakes, neurological diseases, and destruction of property that fracking has left in its wake. Documentaries such as “Gasland” and “Split Estate” present powerful cases against fracking.

Finally, we challenge whether this additional emergency power is so essential to our campus. As we learned last month, Wesleyan may have to close even in situations when we are with power, due to safety concerns. In a true emergency situation where there is no power to the city, business does not and should not continue as normal. The new power plant would allow us to provide full power to the campus core in the event that we lose connection to Middletown’s grid. However, in an emergency situation power should only be channeled to the necessities, as is currently the case. By shedding unnecessary energy demand in emergency scenarios, we would have enough electricity and heat to supply dorms, Usdan, Exley, Hall-Atwater, Shanklin, and parts of Freeman with our existing power plant. In these situations, even if we are able to power classrooms and have classes, faculty and staff must still come to work from homes where they have no heat or lighting, and many students living in woodframe houses would be in the same situation.

At what cost do we keep “business continuity” as our campus’ priority? At the cost of being further complicit in the degradation of frontline communities exposed to the destruction of hydraulic fracturing? At the cost of crippling our ability to become carbon neutral? At the cost of compelling faculty and staff to come to work even when they may not be able to do so safely? The world doesn’t simply keep on moving just because we will it to. As a community, we need to think about this investment in its greater context and weigh the full costs and benefits.

We call on students to hold the administration and Board of Trustees accountable, to make sure that decisions regarding campus energy production are not made in a bubble and to demand our decision-makers take a more considered approach in our emergency response and planning.

With great concern,

Marjorie Dodson ’13, Emma Pattiz ’13, Virgil Taylor ’15, Evan Weber ’13