Editorial: Where’s UConn on fossil fuels? 

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The UConn Cogeneration Plant, which provides a large percentage of the University of Connecticut’s power, lies on the north side of campus. Despite UConn being rated highly in terms of being environmentally friendly, the plant uses gas and is a large source of carbon emissions. Photo courtesy of CT Energy and Tech website.

Earlier this October, researchers at the University of Connecticut received a grant for upward of two million dollars from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to remove the harmful greenhouse gas sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6, from the United States energy grid.  

This grant is promising and furthers an important national goal in sustainability. However, grants like this raise obvious questions about UConn’s relationship between its status as an institution of higher education and research, and the processes of decarbonization. First, we should ask: why do scholars at UConn pursue research and grants focused on removing pollutants from the United States environment at large while neglecting opportunities to decarbonize right here in Storrs?  

We should remember that, in spite of touting its status as a “Cool School” according to rankings provided by the Sierra Club, UConn is still powered by fossil fuels. Ignoring the fossil fuels required to transport people and goods to and from campus, most of the electricity on campus is provided by our Co-Generation Plant, which is powered from the combustion of natural gas. It is somewhat paradoxical when researchers here study the removal of greenhouse gases while using infrastructure, buildings and tools powered by fossil fuels.  

We should think globally, but we must act locally. Our first concern as a community focused on decarbonization should be the use of fossil fuels to power life on campus, followed closely by the relationship between UConn and industrial fossil fuels at state, regional and national levels.  

Large power plants are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions, which makes them a major contributor to global warming. UConn uses power from both the on-campus plant and energy from the grid attached to other plants, and with such a large campus this makes the university a major polluter. Photo by Vlad Chețan from Pexels.

Unfortunately, UConn fails on both fronts. While in some areas UConn pursues research surrounding emission capture and renewable energy, it also holds massive connections to regional fossil fuel industries. Every year, hundreds of stem majors graduate from UConn, many of whom become engineers and scientists working at companies developing fossil fuel infrastructure. Some of UConn’s other significant industrial connections are contractors for the United States military, which emits an overwhelming amount of the United States government’s carbon emissions as well as more carbon than most countries.  

The UConn Foundation, which “solicits, administers and invests private funds” for the university, continues investing funds in enterprises intent on extracting, developing or in other ways profiting from the combustion of fossil fuels. The foundation is worth almost $463 million, and only under 2% of this amount is invested in fossil fuel or related industries. These investments persist alongside the planned divestment from fossil fuels of more and more university foundations, some of which are far larger than ours

Our aim in this editorial is not to criticize or marginalize the efforts of research in carbon capture or emission mitigation. Instead, we hope to scrutinize UConn’s broader relationship to fossil fuels. As the urgency of the climate crisis increases in coming decades, the UConn community should pay attention to when the institution is genuinely pursuing sustainability versus simply benefitting from the appearance of doing so.  

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