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Introduction: Energy is one of the most contentious issues in the world today. It touches nearly every aspect of our lives and is of critical concern for the economy and realizing modern living standards. Yet our reliance on fossil fuels as the primary energy source that drives or society is problematic. Fossil fuel resources areHeatingPlant_Stacks.jpg finite and the conventional sources are past or near the peak of their production curves (Kerr 2009), which portends escalating prices, conflicts over access and control, and the environmentally risky exploration of unconventional resources. Unconventional fossil energy resources, while abundant in the context of the “in-place” resources, yield far less energy to society than conventional resources.

(Image of UW-Oshkosh heating plant stacks. The larger stack comes from burning coal, as the smaller one comes from natural gas)

Moreover, the combustion of fossil fuels already is implicated in major environmental problems including pollution, land degradation, biodiversity loss, and global warming (Rockström et al. 2009). With a significant percentage of world oil reserves in unstable countries, energy policies in the U.S. and other major fossil fuel importing countries are being tied increasingly to matters of national security.

Under this backdrop and amid recent disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, renewable energy resources are being promoted as alternatives to fossil fuels that must be developed for societies to achieve sustainably. The State of Wisconsin is well positioned to expand the use of its biomass, wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources.

Yet optimism surrounds the possibilities of acquiring natural gas through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but the verdict on the long-term viability is still out on this technology for three basic reasons. Although natural Biodigester_Engine.jpggas burns much cleaner than coal and oil, and produces about half the CO2 emissions at the stack compared to coal, it has two properties that give us cause for concern: first, it has a tendency to leak and escape into the atmosphere unburned as “fugitive emissions.”[1] This quality can be controlled, but tends to occur at all phases of the life cycle from extraction to distribution and storage right up to the point of combustion.

(Close-up of UWO's biodigester engine and exhaust, providing around 10% of campus electricity and onsite and facilities heating)

Second, molecule for molecule CH4 has a much greater global warming potential (GWP) than CO2. The number used to describe the difference between the two often is 25x, which is the number for a 100-year timeframe. The difference over 20 years, however, is more than 100x.[2] Because climate change looms so very large, some authorities argue that the shorter time period should be used. Either way, because the global warming benefits of methane over coal ignore fugitive emissions, those benefits decrease with increasing amounts of fugitive emissions.

Moreover, because the global warming potential of natural gas is much greater than CO2, a relatively small percentage of leakage can negate all benefits at the stack. Recent studies have shown that leaks can be found to release around 9% of gas along all aspects of extraction, transportation, and burning. [3]

Additionally, fracking’s other environmental impacts including freshwater contamination, freshwater depletion, and anthropogenic earthquakes should be factored into the accounting as negative externalities. Although campuses are not required to include such costs, it is not unreasonable to consider them and to make plans with them in mind.

Energy Efficiency:

It has been said the cheapest watts or therms are the ones you don’t use. Although obvious, the importance of the statement is that investments in efficiencies typically pay for themselves in relatively shorter time periods than investments in renewable energy installations such as wind and solar.

We waste 69% of the electricity that we generate with fossil fuels through transmission losses and waste heat at power plants. In the transportation sector, we waste 75% of the potential work capacity of the fossil fuels to transport people.

Since the previous plan:

The campus electricity consumption is down by 5.75% from 2005. Campus energy audit data was reviewed resulting in the installment of classroom light sensors, consolidating building usage, and replacing incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs. These recommendations paired with the installation of green roofing, has reduced campus energy consumption. While many of the appliances purchased for the campus are Energy Star-rated, this is not an absolute.  Other on-going efforts yet to be completed include permanently reducing light levels in hallways by 20%, conversion of pneumatic control systems to direct digital control, and the conversion of inefficient HVAC systems. Establishment of connected plug load guidelines and installation of a Thermal Ice Storage Facility have not been performed. Energy usage feedback and education to campus users was also not reported.

Campus use of fossil fuels for heating is down by 8% from levels in 2000, which does not meet the original goal of a 50% reduction from 2000 to 2012. After reviewing campus energy audit data, some improvements were made including replacement of old windows with high-efficiency double-pane windows and building consolidation during low-usage periods. Assessments were made in using an alternative biomass fuel source at the Campus Heating Plant. Installation of solar hot water heaters and secondary heating and cooling systems (not connected to the central unit) also contributed to the campus’s reduction of energy consumed for heating. Feedback on energy usage data and education to the campus was not reported.

With the exception of a wind turbine installation, the campus has made great progress in pursuing the ambitious goal of becoming 100% independent of fossil fuel usage for electricity, heating and cooling. Energy analysis of the campus heating plant has been conducted as well as evaluation of the potential for pressure reducing steam turbines for electrical generation. Installation of a biomass electricity generation facility (the biodigester) has led to reduced energy consumption as well as installation of photovoltaic panels. The feasibility of installing biodiesel peak load shaving generators has also been studied.

Energy Efficiency Goals

Energy Choices and Climate Change Goals

(Sustainability plan citations)


(Close-up of solar photovoltaic power cells)

[1] See Howarth et al. (2011), Howarth and Ingraffea (2012), Santoro et al. (2011), Tollefson (2013), Weber & Clavin (2012), and Wigley (2011) for research and discussions on the state of our understanding of fugitive emissions associated with natural gas fracking. The most reasonable conclusion to draw at this time is we just don’t know yet whether or not shale gas from fracking is better for the climate than conventional coal.

[2] Shindell et al. (2009) suggest that the GWP for methane for 20-year time periods should be 105 times that of Co2.

[3] Tollefson, Jeff. 2013. "Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas losses of up to 9% show need for broader data on US gas industry’s environmental impact." Nature 2 January.

by Spanbauer, Bradley R last modified Apr 17, 2014 03:07 PM

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