NEWS New Report: How UC Can Meet Its Ambitious 2025 Carbon Neutrality Goal

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The Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia believes it can go car­bon neu­tral by 2025. That means zero car­bon emis­sions from pow­er­ing its build­ings and vehi­cles on all ten cam­pus­es. But accord­ing to a recent report and relat­ed com­men­tary by experts from across the sys­tem in the jour­nal Nature, it could be a tough goal to reach. That’s a posi­tion shared by Berke­ley pro­fes­sor and ener­gy expert Dan Kam­men, who was not affil­i­at­ed with the report. “We’re not actu­al­ly on pace for our 2025 goal,” he said—more like 2035 or 2040. “We need to accel­er­ate. That’s one of the key things.”

To be fair, the goal—like the Kyoto Pro­to­col, the Paris Agree­ment, and AB 32 before it— is an ambi­tious one. The uni­ver­si­ty is specif­i­cal­ly look­ing to light the way for large insti­tu­tions the world over as well as the entire state of Cal­i­for­nia, which is con­sid­er­ing its own car­bon neu­tral­i­ty tar­get of 2045.

UC has a long way to go. From 2009 through 2015, the report shows, the uni­ver­si­ty reduced elec­tric­i­ty demand sys­tem wide through effi­cien­cy retro­fits to offices, restau­rants, res­i­dences, and more, net­ting UC more than $20 mil­lion a year. But it bare­ly moved the nee­dle on car­bon emis­sions: 1.3 mil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon diox­ide annu­al­ly in 2009 to 1.1 mil­lion in 2015.

Fig­ure 1.4 from Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Strate­gies for Decar­boniza­tion: Replac­ing Nat­ur­al Gas

To bring that num­ber down to zero over the next sev­en years, the uni­ver­si­ty will need to “bend the curve,” the report con­cludes. Even with renew­able ener­gy com­ing online that wasn’t avail­able a few years ago, the uni­ver­si­ty must ramp up its efforts—rapidly.The authors of the report and com­men­tary sug­gest a three-step approach. First is mak­ing build­ings and oth­er facil­i­ties even more effi­cient, which could net anoth­er $20 mil­lion in sav­ings per year by 2025, the authors project.

Next is an inter­im mea­sure, switch­ing to bio­gas for cam­pus pow­er plants. Pro­duced through the break­down of plant mat­ter in an oxy­gen-con­trolled envi­ron­ment, bio­gas is chem­i­cal­ly iden­ti­cal to nat­ur­al gas yet con­sid­ered car­bon-neu­tral. Although the fuel is already in use to a small extent on some cam­pus­es and more is planned, the authors note that due to sup­ply lim­i­ta­tions, it isn’t a solu­tion that can scale up to nation­al use. And while the move to bio­gas could put a huge dent in UC car­bon emissions—almost all of which are cur­rent­ly asso­ci­at­ed with nat­ur­al gas combustion—the fuel isn’t with­out risk. Leak­age from gas infra­struc­ture could sig­nif­i­cant­ly hin­der UC’s efforts by releas­ing methane direct­ly into the atmos­phere, Kam­men says.

The final step requires phas­ing out gas alto­geth­er. That means elec­tri­fy­ing every cam­pus from top to bottom—from the heat­ing sys­tem in Dwinelle Hall to the main­te­nance truck parked out back—and pur­chas­ing pow­er from only zero-emis­sions sources like solar, wind, and geothermal.

Cam­pus elec­tri­fi­ca­tion is straight­for­ward enough for new build­ings and domes­tic water heat­ing, says Karl Brown, deputy direc­tor of the Berke­ley-based Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute for Ener­gy and Envi­ron­ment and one of the report’s 27 authors. It’s much more dif­fi­cult with exist­ing build­ings and high-tem­per­a­ture end uses, such as ster­il­iza­tion of lab equip­ment in, since that requires com­plete retro­fits and like­ly removal of gas-burn­ing facilities.

Camille Kirk, who directs UC Davis’ Office of Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and was not involved in the report, says the 2025 goal is still fea­si­ble as long as the uni­ver­si­ty makes the prop­er finan­cial invest­ments; receives full sup­port from fac­ul­ty, alum­ni, and the gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly around infra­struc­ture renew­al; and doesn’t insist on full elec­tri­fi­ca­tion by 2025.

And while the authors of the report cau­tion that UC’s lead­er­ship in this are­na won’t mean much if oth­ers don’t fol­low suit, the specifics of its approach “[don’t] need to direct­ly trans­late to spur oth­er insti­tu­tions’ think­ing and cre­ativ­i­ty about solu­tions that might be bet­ter for them,” Kirk said.

Ulti­mate­ly, the authors note, “bend­ing the curve more sharply requires both aca­d­e­m­ic and prac­ti­cal insights,” which is exact­ly what the uni­ver­si­ty hopes to bring to the problem.

For the orig­i­nal arti­cle, click here.

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