The challenges that world leaders face as they gather in Glasgow to attend COP26, the U.N. summit on climate change, are enormous. 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 that its mission is to educate, inform, and be 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 steam and electricity. While solar energy prices have fallen almost 90% in the past decade, fossil gas prices have doubled over the last year and are on the rise.
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It’s not just outdated technology, it’s a financial boondoggle known as a stranded asset.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. A gas power plant’s life expectancy is 50 years. Therefore, UF and the environment will continue to use this polluting technology for at most two generations.
It was likely that the idea of a more efficient combined-cycle gas plant for UF was conceived five or ten years ago. According to estimates, the new system will be 25% less efficient than the old system. The cost of solar is now much lower, with a huge solar build-out taking place 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 are a viable power source, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and increase resilience.
Why is there so much concern about gas? Ten and 20 years ago, it was considered a “bridge fuel” to replace coal until renewables were ready. Methane, which is the primary component in natural gas, is a remarkable greenhouse gas. It is 80 times more efficient than carbon dioxide as a heat trapping agent and is released within 20 years.
Every stage of natural gas production and transportation is affected by methane leakage. A major U.N. report recently stated that natural gas is needed to combat climate change. Alternatives to natural gas are available.
How have other institutions similar to Stanford dealt with the challenges of disruptive technologies in energy? Stanford University’s gas-fired power plant was replaced by grid-sourced electricity in 2015. Two-thirds came 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?
Science tells us climate change is irrefutable. But science also tells you that it is possible to prevent or reduce its worst effects. To meet our climate targets, fossil fuels must be eliminated as soon as possible. UF is planning to build a new gas-powered power plant to produce steam and heat, instead of developing innovative 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 do 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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This article first appeared on The Gainesville Sun. David Hastings: UF ignoring climate solutions with fossil gas plan