Climate of Uncertainty
One year after the Energy Transition Plan passes, MSU still unsure of how to meet goals outlined in plan
This Earth Day, MSU is making progress on many fronts toward sustainability. The university significantly has reduced landfill waste and energy consumption while almost quadrupling in weight the amount of items reused in the last five years. Recycling also has increased, and numerous research studies into alternative fuels and energy sources are occurring.
Although sustainability is a broad, multi-faceted concept, the contention surrounding MSU’s efforts toward sustainability is centered around a single building at the south of campus: the T.B. Simon Power Plant.
Running on a mix of coal, natural gas and biomass, the plant powers the entire East Lansing campus, providing electricity to power MSU and steam to heat and cool the university’s buildings. It is an efficient and reliable infrastructure — one that both the university and activists are working to change.
But while MSU works to reduce its dependence from highly-polluting fossil fuels, the university has encountered a number of challenging realities.
A goal, not a guide
Then-human biology junior Tiffany Cotton holds a banner that reads "President Simon, protect our health, no more coal" at a clean energy demonstration Oct. 19, 2011, in front of administration building. MSU Beyond Coal and MSU Greenpeace hosted the protest, calling the end of the coal-burning T.B. Simon Power Plant on campus. State News File Photo
Then-social science and international studies sophomore Peter Rustad is escorted out of President Lou Anna K. Simon's office Oct. 20, 2011. Protesting MSU's use of coal to generate electricity, Rustad was one of three MSU Greenpeace activists who were arrested at the Administration Building for sitting in after hours. State News File Photo
A pile of coal rests at the base of the T.B. Simon Power Plant on Jan. 19. 2012. MSU officials recently announced a goal to use 100 percent renewable energy in the future. State News File Photo
Then-special education freshman Michael Schon scrapes uneaten food off of a plate March 28, 2012, while working in the dish room of Brody Square. State News File Photo
Containers of food waste from MSU cafeterias sit in front of the anaerobic digester on Monday, Nov. 26, 2012, behind the MSU Dairy Teaching and Research Center. The digester receives food waste twice a week from Brody Square. State News File Photo
Solar panels are pictured Friday, April 19, 2013, on the roof of the MSU Recycling Center, 468 Green Way. MSU's push for a greener campus includes many different services, from recycling to alternative energy sources. Adam Toolin/The State News
A little more than one year ago, the Energy Transition Plan was approved by the Board of Trustees. The plan’s ultimate goal is to transition MSU to 100 percent renewable energy, but to the chagrin of student environmental groups on campus, the plan doesn’t set a date for the goal to be met or a specific strategy to achieve it.
According to Jennifer Battle, who is director of the Office of Campus Sustainability and one of the document’s authors, the members of the plan’s Steering Committee never intended to create a step-by-step operational plan.
“We thought it was important to set the targets and set the objective and be as flexible as possible in how we get there,” Battle said. “The charge was to create a framework, create a long-term general strategy and make suggestions. What we decided was the big, hairy, audacious goal was 100 percent renewable energy, but to say ‘we know exactly how to get there by this timeline,’ I don’t think it would have been responsible of us because it would have been a guess.”
Harder to reach
However this uncertainty is not limited to only the plan’s loftiest goals.
On page eight of the Energy Transition Plan, a table captioned “MSU’s plan for their transition to 100% renewable energy,” provides benchmarks for MSU’s performance until 2030. The first benchmark, set for the 2015 fiscal year which will begin July 1, 2014, calls for MSU to be powered by 15 percent renewable energy and to reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent.
As of the 2012 Environmental Stewardship Report released at the end of last year, MSU is powered by approximately 2 percent renewable energy and has reduced greenhouse gas emissions about 14 percent.
With less than 18 months until the beginning of the 2014-15 fiscal year, university officials working closely with the Energy Operations Committee, the group formed to oversee the implementation of the plan, still are not certain how the most immediate benchmark will be achieved.
Lynda Boomer, the energy and environmental engineer at Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, said the goal for greenhouse gas reductions likely could be met by 2015 by switching from coal to natural gas or biomass at the power plant, and making buildings more energy efficient. The renewable energy goal, she said, would be harder to reach.
“That’s because of the economics,” Boomer said.
“Do we buy green energy? Then we’re not generating it ourselves, (by) buying green electricity on the grid. Or do we buy renewable energy credits to meet the first short-term goal? We may end up having to do that for 2015. I don’t know the answer yet. We’re working hard to figure out if there’s another way that we can actually invest to be able to generate ourselves, but if we don’t have that answer by 2015, it might not be until 2020 that we have the technology in place to achieve that renewable goal.”
MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon sees the current uncertainty as an affirmation of the plan’s boldness.
“When you have an aggressive benchmark, it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll meet it.” Simon said.
“That’s why the plan is very aggressive. There was not a clear path to meeting those short-term benchmarks and so when we talk about this being an aggressive plan and holding ourselves accountable, it really isn’t about a date, it’s about a target that really is difficult to meet but yet we think achievable to meet.”
Yet, according to members of MSU Greenpeace, the plan is not nearly aggressive enough.
MSU Greenpeace is the organization perhaps most boldly opposed to the plan as it stands today.
Members have been arrested protesting the plan and have conducted a number of what the organization deems “direct actions,” including dropping banners and delivering letters to Simon’s office.
Recently, MSU Greenpeace has displayed a potential shift in tactics, meeting last Monday with Battle and MSU Vice President Bill Beekman in an hour-long meeting where the organization asked MSU to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.
MSU Greenpeace coordinator Laura Drotar, history, philosophy and sociology of science sophomore, didn’t feel the meeting made much progress.
“I think (the meeting) made me feel like we’re not getting through to them. The urgency of this issue is not a priority of Michigan State University,” Drotar said.
“I feel like MSU is taking small steps to address issues with climate change, but I feel like these steps are more to cover their image and not genuine steps to address the real issues with climate change.”
_Reporting and interviews for this article were initally gathered as part of an undergraduate research project. _