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Fueling the Future

MSU proposes new energy plan, transition to 100 percent renewable energy in future

January 19, 2012
Photo by Infographic by Liam Zanyk McLean | The State News

One day, coal might not be burned at the T.B. Simon Power Plant.

If a plan is approved by the MSU Board of Trustees at its April meeting, officials plan to invest $30 million to $40 million during the next 10 years to start MSU’s transition to 100 percent renewable energy — the ultimate goal.

“The long-range plan is to guide the university toward renewable energy and have some short-term strategies to help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Lynda Boomer, the energy and environmental engineer with the MSU Physical Plant.

Although the goal is absolute, the potential costs and what the future holds are not.

Cue the Energy Transition Plan, or ETP — a blueprint released this week to describe how the university will move forward while relying less on fossil fuels, said Jennifer Battle, assistant director of the Office of Campus Sustainability.

The plan’s more than 100 pages set the foundation necessary to plan and manage the energy resources MSU has now and what it might have down the road, Battle said.

But some student groups already are speaking out against officials’ efforts.

“We’re not happy with the fact that they’re making it so open-ended,” said Tayla Tavor, English senior and president of MSU Beyond Coal.

“We know you cannot predict the future, (but if MSU) shows leadership in this one area, it could be the thing that puts MSU on top for this generation.”

Planning ahead
One hundred and eighty-six pages of the ETP’s PDF document is the final outcome of about three years of envisioning the future of energy use on campus.

To begin, Battle said a 24-person steering committee was formed within the past couple years to predict how the university community would consume energy while keeping capacity and efficiency in mind.

“We focus on the academic enterprise, and in order to meet our core missions, (including) teaching and research, energy is one of those things we need,” Battle said. “How do we manage it, make it effective?

“It’s really important to have a plan to manage our resources.”

According to the ETP, MSU has three main goals moving forward.

The first is to improve the physical environment. Renewable energy currently makes up less than 2 percent of energy consumed and by 2015, that goal is 15 percent. By 2030, the goal is to have 40 percent renewable energy.

Fruits of officials’ labor might already be paying off: carbon dioxide emissions from the power plant have dropped about 17 percent from 2006-2010 because of decreased coal burning, according to the Physical Plant’s website.

The second goal is to invest in sustainable energy research and development. Costs upward of $40 million within 10 years — with investments to meet energy standards with new construction — are based on one of the plan’s energy efficiency models, Battle said.

Specific funding after the first 10 years has not been established, nor have funding sources until the plan is presented to the Board of Trustees.

She added when envisioning the future, one cannot be so prescriptive but must remain open. For example, the university cannot commit to fund one sort of technology, such as solar, when months later, another technology might be much cheaper and even more energy efficient.

The ETP explores options including wind, solar and fuel cells, among others, and lists each’s cost to the university.

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“Because it’s a balance, you need to have direction in order to know where we want to go,” Battle said. “What we know today and what we know tomorrow likely will be different.”

Because cost always is a factor on students’ minds, Boomer said they will be considered.

The potential high costs of energy always could force officials’ hands in increasing tuition, but that’s not going to happen if a plan such as the ETP is followed through, she said.

“I feel confident about … investing in the right areas, to reduce our overall costs and keep the university accessible for students,” Boomer said.

The final goal in the plan is to have MSU become an educational leader in sustainable energy.

“There are a lot of things that we have done right over the years; we’re not a city, but we’re kind of built like a city,” Battle said.

“A lot of communities are struggling with (high energy costs), and if we are able to find a pathway to success, it’s part of our duty and mission to share that.”

Questions unanswered
Tavor sat on the steering committee, and throughout she said she found MSU wasn’t doing enough to address students’ needs.

She said she was disconcerted with the lack of leadership throughout the process; having an unspecified date to reach 100 percent renewable energy is a problem, especially with campus coal emissions spewing into the atmosphere.

“They’re not really describing a transition,” Tavor said. “We all deserve better than what the university has come up with.”

Battle disagreed and said each member on the committee had an equal voice.

“We do have dates of targets,” she said. “We needed to create goals and targets that are aggressive and attainable (to) balance cost, health, capacity, reliability … You really have to consider all the trade-offs when you make these types of decisions.”

University spokesman Kent Cassella said MSU doesn’t want to paint itself into a corner by buying into one single technology. The ETP is a roadmap by highlighting what the university can support, given its size and current energy use.

According to a report compiled by Black & Veatch, an Ann Arbor consulting firm officials used to analyze MSU’s energy needs, the T.B. Simon Power Plant historically has provided most of the energy on campus — electricity and steam.

Plant officials from 2006 to 2010 reduced the amount of coal burned from 251,488 tons to 178,550 tons — about a 29 percent reduction, according to the Physical Plant’s website.

During the same time, the burning of natural gas in terms of cubic feet increased by about 471 percent, and biofuels were added to the plant’s burning capability in 2007. About 1,464 tons were burned in 2010.

“(We are) working toward increasing the biomass we can burn,” Boomer said.

Every 10 years, the East Lansing campus has grown about 2 million square feet — the equivalent of about 35 Spartan Stadium football fields. And from 2004-05 to 2008-09, the amount of electricity delivered to students, faculty and staff increased by about 12 percent.

Battle said if the university assumed it would continue growing at a quick pace, the power plant might be at electrical capacity toward the end of this decade. But because of the economy, capacity might not be reached until the 2030s.

Even if the plant does not reach capacity, officials tout conservation efforts.

“The rate of growth has influenced the need for a master plan,” Boomer said. “If we don’t need the energy, turn it off; dial your thermostat down.”

B1G going green
MSU isn’t the only institution with energy on its mind.

Andy Blacker, spokesman for Facilities and Services at the University of Illinois, said officials there established a Climate Action Plan in May 2010. A point was made to cease coal usage at its Abbott Power Plant by 2017.

The university was the first in the Big Ten to formally submit a climate plan, according to the News-Gazette newspaper in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. Officials at the University of Wisconsin also have committed to weaning off of burning coal at their plant.

“The goal to stop burning coal is a realistic one because we’ve already, at certain times of the year, burned just natural gas,” Blacker said.

If MSU set a date to end its coal use, the university would be making some progress by eliminating harmful emissions, Tavor said.

“The plan they come up with is nothing we can stand behind,” she said, adding MSU Beyond Coal members will introduce their own ETP after the MSU Board of Trustees’ Jan. 27 meeting.

Journalism freshman Kiyerra Lake said she’s more concerned with coughing from car exhaust on Grand River Avenue than coal emissions, but added she’s happy with the university’s goal.

“I think they’re looking out for our best interests,” she said.

Trustee Melanie Foster said soon she will read the plan and would not comment on its current form, but said students always have opportunities to shape opinions, whatever the topic.

When students brought an idea to the board for the creation of the new MSU Recycling Center, the board followed through, she said.

“It was a powerful presentation (and) as a result of that, we took an initiative to look at it very seriously and we did something about it, something significant.”

The plan can be viewed at energytransition.msu.edu.

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