The Big IDEA: Creating Decarbonization and Resiliency for Energy at University Campuses

Feb. 16, 2022
The International District Energy Associations CampusEnergy conferences touches on Net-Zero goals, CHP, Hydrogen and even small Nuclear with panelists from Harvard, Virginia, Florida and nationwide.

The hardest test facing many leaders at universities these days may not be their students staring down engineering, mathematics or statistics mid-terms in due time. It’s probably not worrying about if State U is going to survive March Madness.

That wouldn’t even amount to a pop quiz for campus directors tasked with tackling the hardest subject of all—Climate Change.

The energy security and sustainability of the future campus is the biggest grade that school utility planners are aiming to achieve as their respective legacies. Numerous such university leaders spoke Wednesday in the opening day of the International District Energy Association’s CampusEnergy2022 Conference in Boston.

Utility, facilities, and energy managers from institutions such as Harvard, Virginia, MIT, Princeton, North Carolina State, Swarthmore and elsewhere are presenting case studies and future-forward presentations at the event.

Decarbonization, of course, is the key goal for these schools. Yet the Big D won’t maintain an A grade if the lights and heating or A/C don’t stay on.

For this reason, most of those campus representatives confirmed that they were keeping their on-site power—often combined heat and power (CHP) plants fueled by natural gas—despite the trend to tap solely into solar and energy storage options.

“We’ll keep the plant running,” Tom Nyquist, executive director of engineering and campus energy at Princeton, said during the IDEA opening plenary session. “We’re not comfortable abandoning having on-site electrical generation equipment because of what happened in Texas (with last year’s winter storm disabling much of the grid) and with (Superstorm) Sandy.”

CHP is a huge driver of power generation on large campuses, with the University of Florida, Clemson and others working toward newer, more efficient facilities. They all want to reach net-zero carbon emissions in coming decades, but you can’t risk too much in resiliency or financial resources.

Both of those two factors are key considerations in many on-campus projects. Efficiency also becomes a major goal, whether it’s building improvements such as electrical heat pumps, new windows and lighting.

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Others are finding ways to squeeze more energy out of unsung resources. For instance, the University of Virginia’s director of energy and utilities, Paul Zmick, recounted how they realized the potential from activities by a local water authority on adjacent land.

“Can we take the heat out of that water before it’s converted from raw to customer grade?” Zwick said. “They said yes.”

The extracted heat can supplement on-campus heat pumps. Jennifer Meisenhelder, director of utilities at the University of Florida, also noted that her employer is preparing to build a new CHP plant. In the meantime, they are studying and asking about utilizing methane from a nearby wastewater treatment plant.

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Solar and wind, coupled with energy storage, are certainly high priorities for those seeking to decarbonize energy use at the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Yet one of the ABCs of energy resiliency is that the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and high-level research cannot tolerate long-term power outages.

So it’s all hands on deck, or at least most resources at our disposal. The discussions range from greater efficiencies with gas-fired combustion turbine technologies, pulling up geothermal and even the potential of zero-carbon and small modular reactor nuclear energy.

SMR nuclear is not installed anywhere, yet numerous entities are closer to getting pilot projects into development.

“We are looking at small modular reactors,” noted Janine Helweig, director of utilities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s also a political issue; it’s carbon-free but what do you do with the waste?”

Commonwealth Fusion, a nuclear-energy technology startup which was launched at MIT, will be one of the IDEA CampusEnergy speakers later this week. 

Hydrogen is also carbon-free, at least if it’s created via clean-energy electrolysis, and some schools are exploring that new frontier. Thomas Koeppe of Siemens Energy presented a look at the work his company is doing to potentially create an H2 storage capability on the Clemson University campus in South Carolina.

H2Orange, the project moniker in honor of the school’s main color, is focused on how Duke Energy grid electricity—generated by solar and/or wind in the best-case scenario—can power electrolysis creating hydrogen from water.

The resulting H2 would then be incorporated at various percentages into the gas-fired fueling mix for the Siemens SGT-400 turbine generating electricity for the Clemson campus. The process would include Siemens’s Silzyer PEM electrolyzers which have been deployed and operated in many industrial applications.

“We have these mature technologies where we have experience and can integrate them into this existing system,” Koeppe pointed out.

The goal is a 10-MWh hydrogen storage system and eventually blending that stored H2 into the gas-fired turbine at 30 percent and, ultimately, 100 percent levels.

So far so good. Among the challenges, though, are the deep costs to deep decarbonization.

One scenario, if it costs $2 to produce a kilogram of H2, would carry a projected $23 million price tag to achieve 100 percent decarbonization with this project. The veritable bill could rise to almost $43 million if the cost reaches $4 per kilogram of hydrogen produced.

“We really do need to put our heads together to find a cost-effective solution,” Koeppe noted.

Partnerships are the key, and the IDEA CampusEnergy conference has attracted a wide range of experts from the academic, regulatory, governmental and private sectors. Other speakers through this week include energy directors from the University of Colorado, Arizona State, Amherst and companies such as Jacobs, NextEra Energy Resources, FuelCell Energy, Burns & McDonnell and AlphaStruxure, among many participants.

The event continues through Thursday at the Westin Boston Seaport District Hotel. Sessions also can be accessed here.  

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(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 14-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can reached at [email protected]).