Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Like the current North Campus, the new additions will run primarily on natural gas.

September 12, 2018

Local Activists Challenge University’s Plan to Run North Campus Additions on Natural Gas

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Architects representing the University defended the decision to power the new North Campus expansion with natural gas at an Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting on Wednesday.

The North Campus Residential Expansion will construct two new housing sites on North Campus, giving housing to an additional 1,200 freshmen and 800 sophomores, The Sun previously reported.

These new dorms, like North Campus currently, will be powered by Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power Plant, which relies on natural gas. Natural gas is composed mostly of methane, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Kathryn Wolf of Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects spoke about Cornell’s project at the meeting and described how the power plant works. She said the gas passes through a combustion turbine, which produces electricity that “powers the campus.” She said this process “throws off waste heat,” which is captured to produce steam, and that steam heats Cornell. In addition, the University uses lake-source cooling to cool the campus.

“This [cogeneration] system is the most efficient and generates the least greenhouse gases of any solution today,” she said.

She said that Cornell is committed to its Climate Action Plan, and the project is being designed in a “flexible” way.

“[The project is] being designed in a way that can be switched over in the future to other renewable energy sources when they become more efficient than the Cornell district energy system,” Wolf said.

Before architects from Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects spoke, community members voiced concerns during the public comment section of the meeting.

Buzz Lavine, an anti-fracking activist from Dryden, described the environmental impacts of methane leakage. He said that by the time natural gas reaches the place where it is used, such as a power plant, “a significant portion” of the gas has leaked. The “best estimates” for the leakage amount today, according to Lavine, are five to 12 percent of the gas.

Lavine explained that methane, once it enters the atmosphere, acts “80 to 100 times as rapidly as [carbon dioxide]” over the net 10 or 15 years. This is because most of methane’s action occurs “upfront,” according to Lavine, while carbon dioxide “takes a long time to have its effects.”

“That also means that methane emissions, if we’re able to control them, lessen them, get rid of them completely — that’s our very best hope for conquering climate change,” he said.

Joseph Wilson described a memo that he, along with 15 other individuals, including Lavine, wrote to PEDC.

“In reviewing Cornell’s application, we involved experts in energy, emissions and building efficiency,” Wilson said at the meeting, referring to the memo. “We found at least 12 instances in the application of inadequate, incorrect or misleading information.”

One example is how Cornell, in its application, “omits quantification and consideration of ‘upstream methane emissions,’” according to a copy of the memo given to The Sun. Quantification of the emissions is mandatory under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, according to the memo.

Jenny Xie ’20, a member of Climate Justice Cornell, also spoke at the meeting. She said she is “frustrated” at Cornell for “failing to do a comprehensive and thorough assessment of student opinion” on the project before starting its plans.

“In the application for the project, Cornell indicated ‘no’ for whether or not methane would be generated by the project, which is misleading,” she said. “Even if the construction of the project doesn’t generate methane, the actual project itself, once completed, obviously will, since it’s being powered by the combined heat and power plant.”

According to Xie, the new buildings will utilize 41 million cubic feet of gas each year.