March 29, 2017

Climate Action Group Lays Out Plan for 2035 Carbon Neutrality

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Members of the Cornell Senior Leaders Climate Action Group held a public forum Tuesday, explaining how they intended to build upon the University’s existing Climate Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 while fielding questions from curious and concerned citizens.

The majority of the 90 minute event focused on open discussion. A panel of Cornell scientists, administrators, faculty and deans aimed to reassure the local community that shifting towards renewable energy sources would leave an overwhelmingly positive impact on the town, although the panel still pointed out some minor issues they intended to address.

SLCAG formed in 2015 as a way to consider ways to address various climate issues, including increasing carbon dioxide emissions. In March 2016, Provost Michael Kotlikoff asked SLCAG to provide the University with ideas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the intention of pursuing multiple alternative energy avenues.

Co-chairs of SLCAG Bill Sitzabee, interim vice president for infrastructure, properties and planning, and Lance Collins, dean of the College of Engineering, outlined the need to reduce on-campus energy use, an effort demonstrated by higher building standards on new facilities and a push towards alternative forms of transportation.

However, the main talking point of the event was about the pursuit of new energy opportunities in the form of deep geothermal, wind, water, solar and biomass energy. According to the group, these were the best ways to reach a carbon neutral campus in the next three decades.

Deep geothermal energy, or Earth source, heat is obtained by drilling wells 10,000 to 15,000 feet deep, to depths in the bedrock where temperatures are very high. Water is then run through these wells, where it is warmed underground and subsequently brought to the surface to be used for widespread heating applications.

“It’s exactly what we do with [lake-effect] cooling, in reverse,” Collins said, referencing a practice already used in Ithaca. “In some ways, we’re simply inverting what we’re currently doing with cooling to provide heating for the campus.”

A few audience members later expressed their concerns about the prospect of ESH, citing its similarities to natural gas fracking, but these concerns were quelled by the combined expertise of the panel. Prof. Jefferson W. Tester, chemical and biomolecular engineering, director of the Cornell Energy Institute, acknowledged the associated risks with drilling deep into the Earth’s crust, but noted that the intent of this system was to ensure environmental safety and longevity.

“In a gas fracking system, you’re basically done with that system fairly quickly,” Tester said, referring to the wells created for access to natural gas. “[ESH] is built to be sustainable, from the point of view of heat production as well as the point of view of well integrity.”

Panel members took turns dispelling other fears over the risk of earthquakes and diminishing property value, reaffirming that this process would be scrutinized and researched excessively before being fully implemented.

Public engagement in carbon neutrality became a prominent topic as well, as the question of student involvement was proposed to the group. Multiple panel members chimed in, stating how the implementation of these energy systems would create multiple applied research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students across departments. They also emphasized how SLCAG would be pushing for increased carbon literacy on campus through newly developed curriculums or modular courses.

Prof. Katie Keranen, Earth and atmospheric sciences, has already gotten a group of students involved with a project to implement seismometers in the surrounding Ithaca area to monitor seismic activity. She plans to apply for further funding to extend the opportunity to geoscience students and interested students from other disciplines. Keranen hopes to be able to set up 1,000 of these instruments, which will assist with determining where to safely implement EHS wells as well as provide hands-on Earth science training.

Sitzabee and Collins proudly acknowledged the positive outcomes of their plan, highlighting a shift away from harmful fossil fuels and the associated unstable energy market and the possibility of creating a new economically friendly energy industry based around ESH. They also emphasized the role Cornell University could play as a model and successful proof of concept for other colleges and organizations around the world to initiate similar programs.

“We consider this part of our land grant mission,” Collins said. “If we’re able to eliminate the use of fossil fuels on campus, we’re demonstrating a pathway for many other communities to be able to do the same.”