Energy Sustainability on Campus: Universities Taking the Lead
College campuses are microcosmic. They have long served as institutes of higher education, but also as environments of change and innovation where the free exchange of ideas and influences are encouraged. College campuses are simply primed for social, political, economic, and now environmental experimentation. They can demonstrate efforts in these areas with the potential to extend to larger communities. Whether they succeed is another matter entirely. But either way, their attempts show us where we can go – what we can achieve.
Within the context of energy sustainability, many college campuses are well on their way to this goal, pioneering novel systems design or implementing local sources of renewable energy. And that brings us to the geothermal energy system project currently underway at Missouri University of Science and Technology, giving yet another example of how economic energy efficiency can be. Covered in a recent environmentalLEADER article, this new energy system is predicted to cut the annual campus energy consumption in half. According to Missouri S&T’s project website, the system will also reduce CO2 emissions by 25,000 tons per year and save 8,000,00 gallons of water per year – not to mention the economic incentive of saving and estimated $1 million in energy costs and operations annually.
To be completed by 2014, the project will replace the existing coal and woodchip fueled steam plant that provides campus buildings with heating and cooling services. Approximately 600 wells will be drilled, connected by an underground system of pipes that will create a larger closed loop system. This network of pipes will link the three planned geothermal plants on Missouri S&T’s campus. Each of these plants will be equipped with heat pump chillers, supplemental cooling towers, and gas-fired boilers.
Of course, Missouri S&T is not the only university that uses a steam plant to heat entire college campuses. Here at the University of Idaho, a biomass fueled steam plant provides 63 buildings on campus with heating services.
In contrast to Missouri S&T’s progress, UI replaced their coal, natural gas, and diesel based system with biomass. While 90 percent of the required steam in produced by burning biomass, natural gas is still used as a backup. The majority of the biomass supply is primarily cedar chip wood waste from the regional sawmills. According to the university website, these saw mills actually own their timberlands. The wood is produced, processed, and the ensuing waste recycled entirely in state – making it a sustainable supply. This fuel choice, like Missouri S&T, was also influenced by cost. Woodchips are about one-third the cost of natural gas and save UI over $1.5 million annually.....
Energy efficiency is quickly becoming a major focus as unversities across the country face financial setbacks. This way universities’ investments in cleaner, renewable energy systems not only reduces their contribution to CO2 emissions and provides long-term energy stability, it significantly cuts their energy costs. This transitory phase is often one of the most difficult to overcome. University administration, students and faculty, and greater society are recognizing that a change is needed in our current energy systems. Quitting fossil fuel and coal-based systems is, by comparison, the easy part. Rebuilding infrastructure and adapting energy policy even on a reduced campus-sized scale is the hard part. While future sustainable energy systems will need to take into account both the efficient use of energy and reduced overall consumption, these two university projects are an impressive start.
For more information on the role of natural gas in terms of energy sustainability, check out University of Idaho Professor Gregory Moller's natural gas segment on his course website Principles of Sustainability.