The CampusEnergy2019 conference program opened Wednesday, February 27th, 2019, with a panel discussion moderated by IDEA CEO, Rob Thornton. Campus energy leaders and business partner experts provided insights on de-carbonizing, resiliency, awareness, modernizing, partnering, and the future.
From left to right, Andre Cangucu, Chief Business Developer, ENGIE North America; Sam Chatterton, Vice President, Johnson Controls, Inc; Carlyle Coutinho, President and Chief Operating Officer, Enwave Canada; Josh Keniston, Vice President, Dartmouth College; Joan Kowal, Senior Director, Energy Strategy & Utilities, Emory University; Jim Lodge, Vice President, Strategy & Business Development, Clearway Energy; Bob Manning, Director of Engineering & Utilities, Harvard University; Juan Ontiveros, Associate Vice President, Utilities & Energy Management, University of Texas at Austin; and Meghan Riesterer, Assistant Vice President, Campus Energy & Sustainability, Oberlin College.
Many of our campuses already have objectives and targets to de-carbonize and reduce emissions embodied in campus climate plans with reportable metrics to achieve carbon neutrality (net zero) or in some cases, fossil free by a defined date. At Harvard University, for example, Bob Manning explained they have statements for both of these strategies: carbon neutral by 2026 and fossil-free by 2050.
Emory University is evaluating the opportunity to reach its goals of 50% emission reductions by 2050 through a self-generation plan including Combined Heat and Power (CHP), rather than just relying on renewable energy sources. At the University of Texas Austin, Juan Ontiveros and his team have harnessed the power of energy efficiency and system optimization projects to support extensive campus growth without increases in fuel use and emissions.
During the panel session, more than 450 members of the audience participated in a live polling exercise. When asked the question, “What technologies have you implemented or considering to lower campus carbon footprint?” 32% of respondents implemented energy efficiency and optimization techniques and 24% implemented CHP on campus. Other techniques included on site solar, contracting offsite solar or wind, geothermal or earth-coupled heat pumps, and biomass.
The Business Partner Leaders weighed in on the effect of de-carbonization goals and changes they are seeing in the RFP’s from campuses and communities. Jim Lodge, Clearway Energy, explained that campuses and communities are looking to modernize infrastructure and diversify fuel supply in addition to de-carbonization. Sam Chatterton, Johnson Controls, added that campuses are expanding their resources and investigating steam to hot water conversion, absorption chillers, and when to run thermal energy storage instead of chillers to maximize energy savings.
Watch the exclusive video clip of the panel discussion here.
Carlyle Coutinho, Enwave Canada, pointed out that solutions to de-carbonization goals vary by location. The surrounding natural environment and regulatory conditions largely determine what solutions are feasible. Andre Cangucu, ENGIE North America, pointed out that biomass, for example, a solution currently being investigated at Dartmouth College, would not be feasible at the University of Texas Austin. There is not one solution across the board, each project must be analyzed according to its location, size, and scope to achieve sustainability, resiliency, and efficiency.
The industry is experiencing some headwinds against use of fossil fuels, including pressure to avoid any fossil combustion so as not to “lock in” emissions or cause expanded use or supply of natural gas. However, there are some misconceptions that burning natural gas is more carbon intensive than buying electricity from the grid, commented Andre Cangucu. Instead, natural gas can be a productive step to achieve the carbon neutrality and move toward fossil-free goals while still providing the level of resiliency needed to support mission critical aspects of campuses and universities.
Dartmouth College is currently investigating converting their district energy system to biomass, but has still been questioned on why Dartmouth isn’t considering a non-combustion or low-combustion solution. Josh Keniston reasoned that resiliency was a large factor in the decision. During -26 °F weeks with no sun in New Hampshire, renewable energy alone would not be able to supply adequate heat and power to campus buildings including residence halls and critical research buildings.
One common industry challenge is simply awareness of the campus district energy system – how it works, why it’s advantageous, and how it supports campus efficiency and environmental objectives. Bob Manning explained that part of Harvard University’s success is that the district energy system with its very efficient CHP assets has been and continues to be seen as part of the solution for reaching its carbon neutral goals. At its new district energy facility, Harvard will have the opportunity to make electricity and provide heating and cooling with a flexible fuel supply and the largest thermal energy storage in Massachusetts. Using real-time carbon intensity of the grid, Harvard will be able to minimize emissions by choosing to produce their own energy when carbon intensity of the grid is high or buying from the grid when carbon intensity of the grid is low.
IDEA member campus energy systems tend to be well maintained, reliable and efficient. Sometimes the challenge is keeping pace with campus growth and modernizing assets to achieve higher efficiency, gain reliability or improve distribution. Meghan Riesterer, Oberlin College, emphasized that modernization was important on her campus and provides significant and permanent operational savings. Of the people in the audience, 31%, are modernizing their district energy systems through enhanced controls/data management, 18% are adding CHP, 14% converting steam to hot water, 12% adding thermal or battery storage, 10% integrating on site renewables, 8% adding microgrids, and 6% converting fuel or prime movers.
Modernizing a district energy system can involve significant complexity, capital and risk. As a result it may make sense to consider bringing private partners into the process. Private partners could bring both expertise in design and construction as well as providing capital and absorbing project or operational risk when replacing aging assets or supporting system expansion. Joan Kowal, Emory University, stressed the importance of successful partnerships to move the campus’ vision forward, citing their recent water reclamation project with Sustainable Water. In order to be a successful partner, Jim Lodge suggested consideration shorter incremental evaluation periods for partnership agreements. Instead of a 50 year agreement term, agreements could be re-evaluated every five years to reduce the risk surrounding the uncertainty of future events. Carlyle Coutinho shared his view that to achieve the organization’s long term goals, partnerships should act as an extension of the organization instead of as an outside party.
Rob Thornton pointed out that we are living in “interesting times.” Utility business models are evolving. Domestic energy costs, particularly natural gas and wholesale electricity, are still quite low. Regulatory and policy uncertainty is increasing, not diminishing. Public awareness of climate change and appetites for clean energy seem to be increasing, especially in light of the tragic fires across western US; the torrential rain and flooding of 2017; and even incidents of devastating infrastructure failure.
When asked to rank their primary focus from now until 2030, the members of the audience determined that ensuring reliability and resiliency was the most important. Joan Kowal stressed that the district energy industry is going to have to be a resiliency leader to drive positive change. Carlyle Coutinho echoed her enthusiasm and stressed the importance of awareness of the industry and being on the forefront of resiliency and efficiency, not just when the storm is happening.
IDEA thanks all of the panelists for sharing their insights and perspectives.