What It Takes To Achieve Carbon Neutrality

By Elle Dickerman

A typical summer morning on the Athens campus of Ohio University consists of warm sunshine, a few students making their way to class and the occasional runner enjoying the riverside bike path. But on June 23, 2015, a group of protestors gathered outside the Lausche Heating Plant west of campus with signs and passionate voices. The construction of a pipeline, which would transport natural gas to the plant, had mobilized the protestors, all of whom believed that this was the last thing the university should be doing. 

“The pipe that they put in is high density polyethylene,” said Joel Baetens, the Director of Utilities at Ohio University. “It’s basically going to last for thousands and maybe a million years.”

It was exactly this sort of permanence that the protestors wanted to discourage. The construction of the pipeline was just one small piece of a $17.5 million project: transitioning the heating and cooling production systems at the Lausche Heating Plant from coal to natural gas. Interviewees argued that by committing to natural gas as a power source, the university was entrapping itself further into a fossil fuel-driven system and reducing its potential to move towards carbon neutrality. 

Originally constructed in the 1960s, the Lausche Heating Plant produces steam to heat buildings and water across the Ohio University campus. This steam also runs the plant’s chillers at the West Green Chilled Water Plant, allowing for the production of cold water. In total, about two-thirds of the energy used at Ohio University is produced at this plant. Up until the completion of the new natural gas infrastructure in November 2015, the plant ran on burning coal. 

“Let me show you what the controls look like on the gas boilers,” Baetens said, leading students on a tour of the Lausche Energy plant. “A little bit different – right?”

On one side of the room a boxy green container as tall as the ceiling is one of the visible remnants from the plant’s coal era. To its right is the new boiler – it is more compact, and much more complex. In addition to the many tubes, valves, and pumps that control the natural gas boiler, a wall lined with four, hundred-thousand-dollar control cabinets give employees further control of the system. “It’s a little more finicky, but it’s safer,” said Baetens, who managed the transition to the natural gas infrastructure.

The 5,200-foot pipeline runs under the Hocking River and delivers the natural gas to the plant. Once the gas arrives, it is used in one of four boilers that produce steam. This steam is either distributed throughout campus through the five miles of steam tunnels, or is used to run the chillers. 

“Gas is a lot cleaner,” Baetens said, referring to the elimination of coal dust in and around the facility. “It also produces about half of the carbon emissions.” 

A goal of reducing carbon emissions was one of the main motivations in the university’s decision to make the switch. In 2012, President McDavis of Ohio University signed off on the university’s first Climate Action Plan. This plan included setting a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2075, requiring the university to find emission-reducing strategies, one of which would be shifting to natural gas at the Lausche Heating Plant. Just six years later, President Nellis decided that 2075 was not ambitious enough, and thus move the goal up to 2050. 

The 2012 Climate Action Plan consists of thirty-five defined strategies aimed at reducing the university’s greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental impact. Under the University President’s Climate Commitment signed by President McDavis in 2007, the plan must be revised and updated every five years, a process that the Office of Sustainability is currently working on. 

“We have created a new plan that has 16 different sections,” said Elaine Goetz, the Director of the Office of Sustainability at Ohio University. Goetz is one of two full-time employees at the office. “We’re creating goals for each of them, and then proposed strategies.” 

Goetz describes how the revision process involves stakeholders all across campus, not to mention a lot of discussion and planning. One of the sectors with the greatest impact on carbon emissions is energy, as its production and use is a direct source of these harmful greenhouse gas emissions. 

“In the energy section,” Goetz says, “there are two main goals. One is to decrease our usage, and the second is to increase the percentage that is fueled from renewables.”

The other one-third  of the energy consumption at Ohio University is sourced from purchased electricity, supplied by AEP. Approximately 18 percent of this electricity used on the Athens campus is purchased through Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Through purchasing RECs, Ohio University can ensure that this portion of its energy demand supports new renewable projects across the country, the majority of which are from wind power. Goetz mentions that she was skeptical at first of the true impact of purchasing energy through RECs, but has since come to believe they are a good option, despite energy sources being located out-of-state. 

“Carbon emissions are worldwide,” she said. “So, if you reduce carbon emissions anywhere you actually are helping with our climate emergency.” The purchase of these RECs also made it possible for the university to reach their 2020 checkpoint goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent.

The campus also has seven different solar installments, which do produce energy on-site at a few locations around campus, including at the Ridges and the Ecohouse. One of the largest grids is at the Lausche heating plant, and was installed in 2012, accompanying the transition of the plant from coal to natural gas. The grid, which produces 61.1 kW, sits almost symbolically on the red roof of the old coal shed, which used to house the mounds of coal prior to their incineration. Viewed from the outside, the plants transition along with the front-and-center solar installment seem to demonstrate a university-wide push towards cleaner energy.

However, this solar array produces less than one percent of campus energy demand. And according to Goetz, the university currently has no plans for additional solar panels. 

“People ask why we don’t put solar panels on all the buildings,” Joel Baetens says, looking out over the solar array from the top deck of the Lausche Heating Plant. “It’s more efficient to have solar panels in Arizona and get 40 percent more output with just a 2 percent loss during transport.”

He also stated how each system requires additional maintenance, which costs more money, both of which continue to prevent OHIO’s capacity to produce renewable energy on-site.

Another major barrier to reducing emissions comes in the form of what is known as ‘path dependency.’ The investments made to construct the existing infrastructure means that a system is already in place to meet the university’s energy requirements. And a big part of that is the Lausche heating plant, especially with its all-new equipment and network of steam tunnels.

If the university were to divert from this already-established path, it would require a huge up-front investment, Baetens said. This investment would cost about $700 million dollars, and would require system-wide shifts, changing everything from the boilers, to the steam tunnels, to the buildings themselves.

“The administration will not commit to spending that money,” Baetens said. “In my opinion, I don’t think we’re on track.”

So, maybe the predominant administrative opinion is that a full switch isn’t feasible at this time. But there still may be other possible options. When the Lausche Heating plant was first constructed, one of the three chillers was designed to run off of steam. This would enable the system to be converted to a combined cycle plant, which would produce both heat and electricity simultaneously from the same amount of fuel. This type of energy production, called cogeneration, is much more efficient, producing significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional systems. The 2012 Climate Action Plan advocated for this design, planning for the Lausche Plant to add on cogeneration capabilities in June 2017. 

However, this was decided against, again due to cost.

“They had allocated a certain amount of money for it,” Joel Baetens said, “then the quotes came in and it ended up being a lot more expensive.” 

The boilers are also designed to run off of a gas source, meaning that with relatively small adjustments they could utilize biofuels rather than natural gas. Research projects at the Voinovich School are already examining sources for this renewable fuel. A biofuel production system is producing crops that could be utilized. Anaerobic digestion is also an option, which is a process that produces a methane-based biogas from the breakdown of organic material in the absence of oxygen. An anaerobic digester pilot project is located next to the university’s composter, but there are no current plans for the composter itself to be retrofitted to produce energy from waste, and no plans to explore renewable gases as an option for the Lausche Heating Plant. 

“These are high in the sky ideas,” Goetz said. “But if we could break it down into small enough pieces then we could cobble together funding.”

If a 2050 carbon neutrality goal can’t be achieved through transitioning to renewable energy sources, the next best option would be to focus on energy efficiency in buildings. For a 2050 goal, however, Baetens believes this still won’t be enough. 

“I just resigned today, because of this,” Baetens said. He officially submitted his notice of resignation on Oct. 23. “I signed up to meet the carbon goals for this campus. And after being here a couple years, I realized that’s not really happening.” 

His next job will be to work for Oberlin College, which has a 2025 Carbon Neutrality goal. As an environmentalist and engineer, Baeten’s career goal is to use his skills to mitigate climate change. 

Achieving carbon neutrality as a necessity to avoid the negative consequences of climate change has increasingly been at the forefront of international discussions and media, due to the youth climate movement inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Athens hosted its own protest, participating in the global ‘Fridays for future’ movement on Sept. 20. The main point being pushed by activists, young and old alike, is that current political and institutional decisions are not reflecting the urgent state of the climate crisis. 

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, we cannot surpass 1.5-degree Celsius of warming if we are to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change. This means that globally, carbon emissions need to be cut in half by 2030, and total carbon neutrality must be reached by 2050 to slow the rapidly changing climate. Every town, city, and university would need to play a role in rapidly reducing emissions if the worst consequences of a changing climate are to be avoided. 

“This is happening now,” Baetens said, “and it’ll be happening for the next several decades until our generation fixes it.” 

Dr. Ryan Fogt, a professor of meteorology and climatology at Ohio University, has been researching the impacts of climate change on Antarctica during his past ten years living in Athens. This past spring, he began a new role as the Sustainable Administration Hub Coordinator.  In this position, he oversees procurement, climate, human resources, and investments. This new structure of the Office of Sustainability, which was adopted in the spring, involved selecting three ‘hub coordinators’ with the goal of integrating the ‘triple bottom line’ into all aspects of decision making on campus, meaning that people, planet, and prosperity are all taken into account. 

“[My] position is about greenhouse gas emissions, how they impact the climate, and what we can do to reduce those emissions so we impact the climate less,” Fogt said. He spent this summer working with the Office of Sustainability to revise the climate action plan in his four areas of management. He hopes that with focused planning and future thinking, the university can achieve their carbon neutrality goals. 

“Our university is relying on old infrastructure that is not cheap to replace,” Fogt said. “To cause significant reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions would require major changes.” As a self-proclaimed ‘neutral optimist,’ Fogt believes that, despite the challenges, a carbon neutrality could be achieved in the future if the university dedicates itself to the goal. 

“I think this requires it being a priority,” he said. “And not just a priority we state out loud, but a priority we actually put money into.”

Money, unsurprisingly, is a major barrier in all aspects of the energy procurement and production systems. Large, upfront investments are typically an unpopular idea across the board, which is what it would take to transition off of the current system. 

“So that’s the problem,” Goetz said, “and we don’t have a solution.” 

Currently, it seems as if Ohio University will not meet their Carbon Neutrality goal of 2050, even with the strategies outlined in a new Climate Action Plan. And this goal is not even urgent enough to contribute to global efforts for rapidly reducing emissions as outlined by the IPCC. There needs to be an urgent, worldwide transition off of fossil fuels to reduce the impacts of a changing climate. 

“It has to happen really soon,” Fogt said, speaking of a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, “and everyone has to do their part.” 

The university seems to be trapped – on one hand, past infrastructure and financial barriers are limiting future decisions, yet on the other there is an urgent climate crisis with a hard deadline. 

“Our grandfathers that built these plants didn’t know how much damage they were doing,” Baetens said. And maybe that’s what the protestors who gathered outside the Lausche Heating Plant in June 2015 had realized – that even if our grandfathers didn’t know that they were committing the school to a future of fossil fuels, the protestors did.

Sunsets at Ohio University set the sky ablaze with a kaleidoscope of colors, soon followed by a blanket of darkness. On that Tuesday in June of 2015, a group of young protestors went to bed full of anxiety. Meanwhile, in the center of campus, the John Calhan Baker University Center was glowing, with five floors of air conditioning, florescent lighting and escalators running late into the night. In the distance, the red lights of Lausche Heating Plant were illuminating the smoke stacks as steam rolled into the darkness. 

This story was originally produced for the Fall 2019 Environmental and Science Journalism class taught by Dr. Bernhard Debatin. All photos are credited to the author unless otherwise noted.

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