Thursday, February 2, 2023

12% forward, 7% back: MSU’s clean energy use has decreased, underperformed board’s goals

December 6, 2022
<p>Pictured is one of the smoke stacks from the T.B. Simon Power Plant on Feb. 14, 2019 in East Lansing. The T.B. Simon Power Plant is the main energy provider for Michigan State University's main campus.</p>

Pictured is one of the smoke stacks from the T.B. Simon Power Plant on Feb. 14, 2019 in East Lansing. The T.B. Simon Power Plant is the main energy provider for Michigan State University's main campus.

Photo by CJ Weiss | The State News

In 2012, MSU’s Board of Trustees passed the Campus Energy Transition Plan, or ETP. The document prescribed yearly goals for the use of renewable energy to power MSU’s campus. It outlined a system of review for updating those goals every five years until the ETP’s planned end in 2030.

On the ETP’s passage, Board of Trustees Chairperson Dianne Byrum said, “at the time, we wanted to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk too.”

Byrum served on the board in 2012 when the plan was presented and passed. At the time, the board wanted to be able to demonstrate that they weren't greenwashing, she said, but rather that they were actually intentional about reducing their carbon footprint.

Today, the university dramatically falls short of both the goals set and the processes for review outlined in the document.

MSU’s campus is energy independent, powered by a natural gas power-plant just south of Holden Hall and arrays of solar panels in various locations. According to the plan, by the 2022 fiscal year MSU should be powered by 22% renewable energy. Today MSU’s campus runs on about 5% renewable energy, according to MSU Deputy Spokesperson Dan Olsen.

This not only falls short of the goals set by the board but is also a step towards fossil fuels from past achievement. According to a 2017 review of the ETP, that year MSU was producing an estimated 12.3% of its energy with renewable sources like solar arrays.

In an email to The State News, Olsen said that the underperformance could be explained by an increase in large facilities with high electrical demand.

“Additionally, we have the benefit of observing the solar arrays’ electrical production amounts over multiple years of operation giving us better production expectations," Olsen wrote.

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Byrum said the board hasn't been involved in any evaluation of the plan's goals or the university's progress since 2017. 

"But, I think in fairness to the board, you had COVID … so the world kind of was upended," Byrum said.

When the plan was passed by the board they foresaw that the goals and the methods for reaching them may need to be reviewed and adjusted periodically.

The implementation section of the plan says that it should be “reviewed every five years by a diverse university committee including students, faculty and staff. During the review, if MSU can move more aggressively toward its vision of 100% renewable energy, it should re-align its goals and targets accordingly.”

In 2017, the first of those reviews occurred. The department of Infrastructure, Planning and Facilities assembled the committee to check up on the university’s progress. They found that while MSU had slightly fallen short of the goals, major progress had been made, namely the transition from coal to natural gas at the MSU power plant.

There is no planned review for 2022, as the ETP has been reduced in scale and rolled into MSU’s broader “Strategic Plan.” According to Byrum, this is part of a larger reconsideration of the ETP’s value to university.

“It kind of served its purpose, in the initial years,” Byrum said. “Now it's been woven into one of the pillars of the strategic plan, but it’s a fair question, as to, 'are we paying attention to it?'”

The focus of the strategic plan’s sustainability pillar is on total emissions, not energy production. While it’s reviewed annually by the board, there isn’t a process for a broader stakeholder review like the one prescribed in the ETP.

The timing of the inclusion in the strategic plan lines up with the reversal of the ETP’s initial progress. Despite this, Byrum believes including the sustainability goals in the strategic plan is the best route going forward.

“I think it elevates it by being part of the strategic plan, and not just being kind of a standalone plan out there, not connected with the overall goals of the university,” Byrum said.

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Trustee Melanie Foster is the only other current trustee who served during the ETP’s passing. She was initially hesitant to support it. Board minutes note that she said a move to renewable energy should concern constituents as it would be a “cost contaminant” to the university.

Today, Foster agrees that the combination with the strategic plan is the best course for the ETP,  saying the ETP “rightfully belongs as part of the strategic plan because it lays out our objectives going forward.”

Foster, Byrum and Olsen could not explain how the decision was made to reduce the ETP and include it in the strategic plan. Though, Byrum confirmed that the board did not approve the change.

“I don't know if you can ascribe that decision to any one entity, because it kind of just got included in the umbrella of the sustainability pillar,” Byrum said.

Regardless of how the decision was made, Olsen says the ETP will not be coming back any time soon.

“The energy plant itself called for a centralization of the ownership of this (plan),” Olsen said. “So, this transition to the strategic plan and bringing sustainability as a pillar of our 2030 strategic plan is something that we plan to continue going forward.”

Going forward, Byrum no longer sees energy transition as the top sustainability priority.

“I think that's where the national narrative is, it’s reducing your total carbon footprint, and it's multifaceted," Byrum said. "It goes beyond just the generation of energy.”

Byrum said the sustainability focus was shifting to areas like transportation, though she said there was not data available to the board that would suggest transportation makes up a higher percentage of MSU’s emissions than electricity production.

Foster agreed with Byrum’s priority, saying it was time for the board to “look at the mobility issues on campus,” which according to her, haven’t been reviewed in over 20 years.

“I think we need to look at alternatives to driving vehicles on campus as much as possible … we should encourage people to walk, I think that's part of being green," Foster said. "Bicycles and walking, I mean, I was just in Amsterdam, and it's amazing how they utilize bicycles there.”

Foster ended her interview with The State News asking for time to research and review documents before answering questions on the value of the broader review process and whether the board was involved in the decision to roll the ETP into the strategic plan. She did not respond to requests for this follow-up interview by the time of publication.

Another complicating factor in the ETP’s future, and its unattributed move to the strategic plan, is the open position of sustainability director.

Amy Butler Kennaugh served as MSU’s top sustainability official until she died in January of this year; the position remains unfilled to this day. A job posting for the position opened on Nov. 1 and recently closed. In the coming months, the university is set to choose a candidate to helm sustainability efforts going forward.

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