Adrian Boteanu / Sun Staff Photographer

University Assembly members discussed alternative energy sources at its meeting Tuesday.

October 18, 2016

University Assembly Explores Alternative Energy Sources

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Faculty representative Robert Howarth and partner members of the Cornell University Senior Leaders Climate Action Group presented findings about sustainable energy alternatives and their correlating costs at Tuesday’s University Assembly meeting.

Howarth outlined a project by SLCAG, which was commissioned by Provost Michael Kolitkoff in March, that outlines the financial analysis, comparative benefits and risks of current and potential energy sources.

SLCAG adopted a “quadruple bottom line framework” for this project, focusing on optimizing the educational, health and financial well-being of the larger community, according to Howarth.

To underscore the University’s need for an alternative energy system, Howarth discussed the financial and environmental damages inflicted by present fuel usage. He compared carbon neutral energy alternatives with the social cost of carbon, a value determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Cornell researcher William Schulze.

“At the time [the University] switched from coal to natural gas, we were using conventional natural gas,” he said. “We’ve learned more about methane in intervening years and now the campus is powered by shale gas. Taking methane into account, the greenhouse gas and carbon footprints have greatly increased and when we put the social cost onto that, it comes to $85 million.”

The project addresses these concerns and supports the usage of renewable energy sources, including wind, water and solar energy for campus electricity, according to Howarth. It also suggests investigating novel energy sources for campus heating.

“We are interested in using ground source heat, extracting heat from the earth as a heating mechanism,” he said. “We don’t know if it is viable as it has not been proven, but it is promising. If we try it and find it not viable we will make an assessment and plan B would be to heat pumps to extract heat from the relatively cold water and soil near the surface.”

Howarth explained that the annual operating costs of the proposed energy alternatives would be nearly equivalent to those of the University’s current system and said taking the social cost of carbon emissions into account could make the energy alternatives even more cost effective.

However, Howarth added that the upfront capital cost of implementing ground source heat technology could require as much as several hundred million dollars, so moving forward with this project would require external funding for the initial implementation.

Employee representative Linda Copman suggested that the U.A. endorse the sustainability project through an official action in a future meeting. The U.A. agreed to discuss the sustainability presentation among respective constituent assemblies and to discuss ways of furthering the project’s impact and implementation.