The University has always been at the forefront of eco-friendly developments. Nonetheless, students often wonder where their energy comes from and if the University is doing all it can for the environment. The Argus took a look into how the University allocates energy and how efficiently it is being used.
In 2016, the University generated 72 percent of its own electricity through four major energy sources on campus. The top three included 13.13M kWh from the Central Power Plant, 4.39 kWh from the reciprocating engine behind the Freeman Athletic Center, and 244k Wh from the solar panels near Freeman.
“[The Central Power Plant] is the heart of our utilities infrastructure,” said Jeff Murphy, the University’s Facilities Business Manager. “That’s where we create steam to heat the campus, where we create power and electricity through our cogeneration system, and where we have chillers that run off our electricity that provide chilled water for our air conditioning to the campus. In addition to the central power plant, we have another—you can think of it as a diesel engine—that runs on natural gas called a reciprocating engine that creates power and steam right at the Freeman Athletic Center right next to the ice rink.”
This year, however, the main engine within the Central Power Plant broke, so the cost for energy this year grew by a large margin. The University not only hopes to have the engine up and running this week, but also hopes to start using the recently installed solar farm on Long Lane Road. However, while this is a huge leap towards a more eco-friendly and energy efficient campus, it’s still not nearly enough energy in comparison to the central plant.
“The Solar Ray out here on Long Lane came online at the end of December,” Murphy said. “We’re still in the final and permeating paperwork process with Eversource to have final interconnection agreements with them. So theoretically, we estimate—based on some engineering studies—that this array [of panels] at Long Lane will generate 1.3M kWh. So you can see, our central power plant creates 13.13M kWh compared to all of our solar together being about 1.5M kWh. The scale is so different because that’s a really big machine that just pumps out the power.”
Since 2003, the University has reduced energy usage by about 43 percent and energy now represents 74 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions annually on campus. Depending on the year, the University uses 60-65 percent of its energy on fossil fuels, 13 percent of which goes to electricity. Science and research buildings currently require the most energy on campus; Exley Science Center uses over 150K. Other academic and administrative buildings take 35-40K (with AC, it’s about 90-110K) and residence halls use 40-50K. The University avoids creating new buildings, revamping old dorms, or increasing square footage because it would increase the carbon footprint drastically.
In comparison to other selective liberal arts colleges like Williams, Pomona, and Wellesley, the University falls just below average energy consumption usage at about 96,000 BTU GSF, with 64,000 allocated for fossil fuels and 32,000 for electricity. Of the group, Wellesley uses the most amount of energy, consuming almost 160,000 BTU GSF. But at a school like Pomona, there needs to be more electric energy for air conditioning, whereas colder schools like Bowdoin need more fossil fuels for heating during snowy winters.
However, while the University does have a relatively low energy consumption, it does have high net emissions per student on a per square foot basis because there is a large volume of space per student on campus. These net statistics include all emissions of fossil fuels by each student, including trash, commuting, study abroad, etc.
“We have a lot of space per student on this campus compared to, you know, Southern Connecticut State University or a community college,” Murphy said. “They’re going to have a lot more people running through their buildings day in and day out than we do because we have 330 buildings and about 2,700 students. Our energy use represents just shy of three-quarters of our total carbon footprint. So if we have about 3,000 students running through our buildings versus having 10,000 running through those same buildings, that makes a big difference when you’re looking at emissions on a per student basis.”
The University has tried to reduce energy usage, but there are inherent obstacles. One, as Murphy explains, is the conversion cost; another is the price of the commodity itself. The biggest and most prevalent, however, is the market volatility.
“In Massachusetts and Vermont, a lot of schools changed over to burning wood chips because it’s more sustainable and was really really cheap eight or nine years ago,” Murphy said. “But as folks started doing that—supply and demand, you know—there was the same amount of supply, but demand went up and thus price went up. So [the University] has to look at how much it is to convert, how much the commodity costs, and what’s the volatility of that commodity over time so we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket, and then have that basket double or triple in price and leave us completely exposed.”
The reliability of supply poses another roadblock toward trying new developments. The University never wants to have to solely rely on another resource for its energy. For example, the wood chips trend requires a truck to come to campus every day to meet power demands. Here, the University questions how likely it is that this truck could always meet the desires our campus requires. Instead, the University would rather run the campus on its own, so it can be isolated from any natural disasters and also support the Middletown community if need be.
Going forward, the University looks to attain carbon neutrality by 2050. If there is any talk about new technologies or new advances in reducing energy consumption, the University is all ears. But in order to get there, Murphy gave some advice on how students can be more mindful of their energy use:
Shut the window: It sounds like a no-brainer, but given the age of the facilities and how people try to deal with heat, many students open the window throughout the winter. However, once the window opens, the building will push more heat out to account for the cold air.
Turn off the lights: Keeping lights on unnecessarily burns through energy and costs the University huge sums of money. Some dorms are lucky enough to have motion sensor lights in the hallways, but many buildings are not so fortunate.
Dress appropriately for the weather: Many students will not check the weather in the morning and will leave their dorms in a t-shirt and shorts when it is 50 degrees.
Keep calling for more sustainable energy and climate action: If students put the pressure on each other and hold people accountable, the campus could attain carbon neutrality sooner than 2050.