After the University of Connecticut’s President, Tom Katsouleas, announced that the construction of the new natural gas fueled supplemental utility plant was halted, environmental activists felt victorious. But, the issue of sustainability may fall victim to UConn’s previous plans and priorities.
It looked like it was going to be a long semester for student environmental activists: Climate protests. Long meetings with the administration. Late night student collaboration. But then, on the afternoon of October 23, feelings of relief filled the air. UConn’s president announced he would halt Phase II of the construction of a new supplemental utility plant (SUP) — an energy plant that utilizes natural gas (a fossil fuel). Environmental activists rejoiced.
“This is a significant step in the right direction,” said Sophie Macdonald, a seventh-semester engineering major and environmental activist.
Demands drafted by UConn’s Fridays For Future, the student activist group that organized UConn’s Climate Strike this September, included stopping fossil fuel infrastructure like the SUP near the top of the list. But underneath this “success” lies a deeper story that reveals the fight for sustainability to be much more complex.
Student activists were taken by surprise when UConn originally announced plans to build the SUP. The University prides itself on sustainability initiatives, touting flashy accolades and a presidential pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The plant was intended to supplement the current cogeneration plant, which produces energy through a trigeneration of chillers, boilers and natural gas. Cogeneration is currently a much more sustainable alternative to traditional energy plants. It utilizes between 60-80% of the energy produced. In comparison, the conventional power plant only employs one-third of energy production. But the plant would still rely on fossil fuels as an energy source, which, under current pledges, sets UConn back.
So when students heard news of cancelling Phase II of the SUP’s construction — the phase that would build a new natural gas-powered facility — students were ecstatic. But unanswered questions still present themselves: Why does UConn need more energy, and how will it meet this energy demand without a new cogeneration facility?
Increase in Energy
The increased need for energy boils down to two projects: The construction of the new Science One STEM building and renovations to Gant. The projects were funded by a $1.5 billion grant called “Next Generation Connecticut,” Governor Daniel P. Malloy’s initiative to “expand educational opportunities, research, and innovation in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines at UConn.” But the investment in STEM development comes at a cost: The new facilities require three times as much energy as regular academic buildings.
“You’ve got lasers, science testing equipment that have to run 24/7 to do the research,” says Stan Nolan, UConn’s Director of Utilities and Energy Management. This growth adds an extra load to UConn’s energy consumption, which already nearly outstrips capacity.
Stopping the new STEM developments may seem like an attractive solution for energy reduction, but is highly unlikely. The detailed campus master plan — which takes years to amend — already outlines and approves the construction of the new buildings.
New Problems: Where Does the Energy Come From?
Now that Phase II of the SUP is cancelled, the University must find a new way to provide energy to fuel the STEM facilities without emitting carbon. According to Laura Cruikshank, Master Planner and Chief Architect at UConn, there are two options: UConn can rely on energy provided by Connecticut’s electricity grid or UConn can find a way to produce energy through renewables.
Option 1: Import the Energy
The first option sounds simple enough; UConn can plug into the state electricity grid. According to Patrick Mckee, UConn’s Sustainability Program Manager, all energy imported to campus must come from renewable sources. In the short term, importing appears to be the easiest and best option to achieve carbon-neutrality. But energy from the state is expensive — much more expensive. Importing energy costs around three times more than creating it on campus through natural gas cogeneration. Scott Jordan, Chief Financial Officer of UConn, has suggested an alarming way to fund the increase: Shifting the costs onto the shoulders of students and faculty.
“To reduce expenses, we would most likely hire fewer employees,” Jordan stated. “To the extent state support did not increase, we would have to look to tuition and fees.”
Connecting to state grid is also much less reliable. Damage from natural disasters, which will increase in a changing climate, may result in power outages.
Option 2: Produce Renewable Energy
Investing in renewables brings other challenges. With today’s technology, the best renewable option is solar. Industry standard solar technology converts only 14% of the sun’s energy into electricity and would require 550 acres of land to match UConn’s energy needs. Due to protections on agricultural land and forests, UConn doesn’t have the space to match current energy needs through solar power. Battery storage may be an option, but producing batteries also has a large carbon footprint.
Every solution concerning energy has negatives that burden people and the environment. But we are running out of time. Fast.
“Every additional molecule of CO2 matters for the kinds of impacts we see,” says UConn professor and climate scientist Anji Seth. “Globally we must be at net zero carbon by 2050, and the U.S. and UConn must lead the effort.”
The university must reevaluate its priorities, not looking only at how it can fuel increasing energy needs. Right now there is a gap between what the university preaches versus what it practices through investments in energy.
“A lot of the energy problem is individual behavior change,” Nolan says. But why does UConn point to individual action when the two most energy intensive units are the STEM facilities and athletics? If UConn buys energy from the grid, why should it place the burden on students and faculty when it spends more than $30 million to fund the massive deficit created by its athletics department? And, if UConn wants behavior change, why isn’t learning how to address environmental crises a main priority in our courses?
“Someone is going to have to lose,” states Mckee. In this situation, UConn will most likely make a decision where the students (especially students who are marginalized by socio-economic factors) will suffer through tuition increases. Highly prioritized are the glamor (e.g., the new student recreation center, athletics) and sparkly innovation. Reprioritization of investments must be considered so that students and the planet, which as humans we need to survive, are the top priorities.
With this in mind, all hope has not been lost. Students are waking up to the lack of sustainable climate action on campus. This semester, UConn held its first ever climate strike, led by students. Their other demands include increasing transparency, student-faculty-administration collaboration, and the commitment to include diverse voices that have traditionally not been part of UConn’s climate adaptation planning. Scott Jordan is excited about this student push for climate justice. The administration is currently organizing student and faculty led groups that will work towards creating more sustainable changes that identify all areas for improvement.
“We need to look at everything,” Jordan affirms.
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Emily Kaufman is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com