Editor’s note: The names of MSU Greenpeace and Beyond Coal have been changed to accurately reflect the events they hosted. Jennifer Battle’s title has been changed to accurately reflect her position with the Office of Campus Sustainability.
A little more than three months ago, MSU began a challenge to one day become a campus powered by 100 percent renewable energy, despite no concrete decisions about which specific types of energy it will use to lower its dependence on coal, currently the main source of power on campus.
The plan — which caused some negative reactions ranging from members of Beyond Coal holding protests, including one with a giant inhaler, to members of MSU Greenpeace hosting a sit-in at MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon’s office, landing three students in handcuffs — has started to be put into action.
Although some students still don’t support the plan, MSU is moving forward through investments with faculty research and $100,000 set to be made available to students from MSU’s Office of the Vice President for Finance and Operations for student research projects dealing with university energy goals.
MSU also has made an effort to continue to “tune up” buildings across campus, making them as efficient as possible, said Bill Latta, assistant vice president of operations for the Office of the Vice President for Finance and Operations.
With no end date set for when MSU will stop using coal as a form of energy, the university is working to meet smaller goals outlined in the plan — the first goal being 15 percent renewable energy by 2015 with a 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — some of which are proving to require more than just changes within the MSU Power Plant.
The Physical Plant and the Office of the Vice President for Finance and Operations have been working on ways to make campus more energy efficient through a process called commissioning.
“Basically, it’s a tuning up of a facility,” Physical Plant Commissioning Services Supervisor Jason Vallance said. “We look at an energy analysis, we look for any outstanding larger scale, higher cost, any major energy projects we need to address.”
Vallance said he works not only with construction teams and designers to make sure new buildings are built to fit university energy efficiency standards, but the physical plant also evaluates older buildings and updates them to make them more efficient.
The university has commissioned or retrocommissioned about 16 buildings since 2008, saving about 34.4 percent in energy consumption since 2005-06, a Physical Plant report from July 10 showed. About 19 buildings are in the process of being commissioned or recommissioned, making older buildings and newer construction projects more energy efficient; and in the next year, about nine new commissioning and retrocommissioning projects will begin.
Latta added one of the other goals of the energy transition plan in terms of buildings is to re-evaluate the expansion of buildings.
Chicken and egg
Assistant professor in the department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Chris Saffron is researching a coal replacement that could eventually end MSU’s dependency on coal power.
There’s just one problem — no company exists with the ability to produce the material, a torrefied or dried wood material, on a large enough scale to power MSU’s campus.
“The (renewable energy) industry is injured a little bit by the chicken and egg scenario,” Saffron said. “Companies aren’t around because there’s no market for the materials yet, and the power plants would like the material, but there are no companies around to make it.”
Saffron said without companies producing large amounts of the material, and a stable market, many coal plants are unlikely to make a major switch to a renewable energy substance. But torrefied wood has the same power per pound as coal, with much milder effects on the environment because its fumes can be consumed by plants, rather than fumes that are harmful to the environment and humans, such as the ones released from burning coal.
Although MSU does burn some wood in the form of biofuel in the MSU Power Plant, Saffron said the wood is not as powerful as the torrefied wood he has studied.
MSU currently burns about 250 tons of overall fuel per day, of which about 50 tons is in the form of biofuel made of wood and greens, Communications Manager for the Physical Plant Karen Zelt said.
Jennifer Battle, director of campus sustainability, doesn’t see the Energy Transition Plan as something that should weigh solely on the shoulders of the MSU Physical Plant, nor MSU’s Finance and Operations Office, she said.
“This is a community effort,” Battle said.
To ensure that students have the opportunity to get involved with making campus a greener place, $100,000 overall will be available in the fall to students who wish to conduct research related to renewable energy and energy efficiency.
But Jordan Lindsay, a history, philosophy and sociology of science junior and media coordinator of MSU Greenpeace, still is frustrated with the university’s efforts to go green, believing they aren’t aggressive enough.
“We need greater leadership from (MSU) President (Lou Anna K.) Simon, starting with a commitment to fix the flawed energy plan, set a retirement date for the (MSU Power Plant) and create an ambitious timeline to transition to 100 percent renewable energy,” Lindsay said.
Graduate student Andrew Grossman, the graduate adviser of SPARTA — a group that studies alternative energy and works to educate students about what they can do to conserve energy — already has gotten involved with the Energy Transition Plan and said working with the Physical Plant has been a great experience.
In the fall, he plans to interview about 15 students to join SPARTA, and the students will develop plans to make about six buildings powered by renewable energy.
Chemical engineering senior Jessica Ferko works with Grossman and also thinks she can have a big impact on MSU’s energy usage through her research on roofing insulation.
“It is cool to have MSU pay attention to our concerns on this,” Ferko said. “One of the great advantages of being at college is we have a lot of driven kids with new ideas. Any opportunity we have to flush out those ideas and really explore them is incredible.”
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