As world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP26, the U.N. climate summit, the challenges they face are huge. The outcome will decide how we survive on a hotter planet, and whether worse levels of warming can possibly be avoided.
We are witnessing our climate drama here in Gainesville at our most respected education institution. The University of Florida recognizes the importance of its mission to educate and inform as well as being a good global citizen.
According to its website, UF is “working toward major institutional changes to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2025.” The recently updated UF Campus Action Plan 2.0 states that “UF has a special imperative to explore bold innovative solutions that address the environmental, social and economic risks posed by climate impacts.”
UF proposes a new 34 MW gas-fired Central Energy Plant to produce electricity and steam. While the price of solar energy has fallen nearly 90% over the past decade, the cost of fossil gas has doubled over the past year, and continues to climb.
Many energy experts predict that gas prices won’t be as low in the future, making the proposed gas plant a costly mistake and contributing to the climate crisis.
Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says that this is like “buying an eight-track cassette player to power the school.”
It’s not just outdated technology, it’s a financial boondoggle known as a stranded asset. A stranded asset is something — like a power plant— that once had value but no longer does, due to an external change, such as the climate emergency. The lifetime of a gas power plant is 50 years, so UF, and our environment, will be stuck with this outdated, polluting technology for at least two generations.
Five or 10 years ago, when the idea for a more efficient combined cycle gas plant for UF was first conceived, it was likely a good idea. Estimates are that the system will be 25% more efficient than the older system. However, the cost of solar has dropped to a level that is affordable. There is a large solar build-out underway in Florida.
The future of battery storage is now a reality. Utilities in Florida and across the U.S. are building solar-integrated storage systems with grid scale storage ranging from 50 to 300 MW. These systems combine to reduce the need for additional fossil fuels, increase resilience, and provide a viable source of power.
Why is there so much concern over gas burning? Ten and 20 years ago, it was considered a “bridge fuel” to replace coal until renewables were ready. Methane (the primary component of natural gas) is a fast-acting greenhouse gaz. In the first 20 years after its release, methane is 80x more effective as heat trapping gas than carbon.
There are methane leaks at every stage in the natural gas production process. According to a major recent U.N. report, in order to tackle climate change, natural gas has got to go. There are clean energy alternatives.
How have similar institutions handled the challenge of disruptive technologies within the energy sector? In 2015, Stanford University replaced its gas-fired power plant and the traditional network of underground steam and chilled-water pipes with grid-sourced electricity, two-thirds of which comes from renewable sources. Stanford is no more locked into polluting, old-fashioned, and expensive electricity.
Stanford also signed 25 year power purchase agreements to provide electricity for over half of its customers. The facility’s innovative results are impressive: greenhouse gas emissions have been slashed 68% and fossil fuel use has fallen by 65%. Why can’t UF develop a similar innovative system?
While science is certain that climate change will continue, it is also clear that it is possible to prevent or reduce its worst effects. We must quickly phase out fossil gas if we want to meet our climate goals. UF plans to build a gas-powered power station to produce heat and steam rather than inventing new solutions.
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If UF continues with their plan, they will be left with a stranded asset and a debt burden that will last well beyond the life span of the gas power station.
The COP26 conference affirmed that the climate crisis has serious consequences. We need to move beyond so called “bridge fuels” which were a mediocre alternative 10 years ago, and won’t satisfy our climate goals now.
UF can either have a gas-fired power plant or be true to its climate commitment. It cannot have both.
Dr. David Hastings works as a climate scientist and is a member the Sierra Club Suwannee St. Johns Executive Committee.
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