Friday, January 25, 2013

More on Campus Energy

Here's more of the story. Right now, Oberlin is powered by two big coal boilers and a smaller natural gas boiler. To avoid hefty fines, the coal boilers need to be replaced. We're replacing them with smaller, more efficient natural gas boilers. The big efficiency bonus is that their energy output is adjustable, while the coal boilers are essentially either on or off. However, this upgrade doesn't address many issues with Oberlin's aging heating system, such as single whole-dorm thermostats. It also means that the coal torn from beheaded mountains and poisoned communities will be replaced by gas torn from fragmented shale and poisoned communities. If you take issue with my assessment of fracking, please comment on the original blog post, or email me. I have good sources that I'd be happy to share.

Anyway, the plan is not to switch to gas and call it a day. Oberlin's Office of Sustainability and many of the administrators, plus many other people, have been working hard to set up a good way forward. The long-term plan, as I understand it, calls for the creation of about seven energy zones that will be heated by combinations of appropriate technology. A couple of zones will be heated by the type of ground-source heat pumps that already supply heat to some parts of campus. The Stevenson-Carnegie zone might be made much more efficient by moving heat from cooled areas to heated ones. There are some cool ideas for these energy zones, but no whisper of a commitment. The only money committed right now is dedicated to designing the new boiler system. Nothing else is guaranteed to happen.

I think the zone system backed up by natural gas is a solid solution that takes into account the financial and environmental aspects of the situation. As a college we're doing pretty well. But as Oberlin, we could go further. Our radical history is just that - history - unless we do a much better job of standing up for what we say we believe in. It would take lots of money, probably from the endowment, and a little sacrifice from everyone who lives and works on campus, because even the biggest ground-source well field or solar thermal system would not supply heat for our current level of consumption. Insulation and other building upgrades would have to be done all across campus, fast, to bridge the gap between what we could generate cleanly and what we consume right now. You can see why I say beyond the feasible. Considering the economics of the "real world," it doesn't make sense to do such drastic things instead of putting in a pair of boilers. In my view, however, the real world has existed long before anyone studied economics and will exist long after the last person who does. And it will be incrementally poorer in species because we continued to be incrementally richer in cash.

The original blog post should be open in a previous tab, but in case something went wrong, here's the link to where you were.