Knowing from my research in preparation for this trip, and now from my conversations with local officials, how much people look to the region for its unique solar and renewable energy technology cluster, it was easy to understand why Freiburg Uni has responded by developing strong academic programs that educate future green industry entrepreneurs, leaders, and policy-makers.
Dr. Stefan Adler arranged for me to give a lecture to his graduate students in the most rapidly successful of these programs – the MS degree program in Renewable Energy Management (REM). He also told me about the partnership between his academic home, the Center for Renewable Energy, and the government-funded Fraunhoffer Solar Energy Institute, located about a mile away from the Center beyond the sprawling Freiburg Uni hospital and medical school campus. REM faculty members conduct research, lectures, seminars, and conferences at the Fraunhoffer Institute. I walked there and saw several arrays on and around the building, and inside, a display promoting the institute’s impressive 5th annual International Solar Summit, scheduled for this October in Freiburg.
Dr. Adler’s 29 REM graduate students from 20 different countries were bright, engaged, and fluent in English, a requirement for admission. I presented an overview of UConn’s sustainability initiatives and activities, focusing on our 2010 Climate Action Plan for a carbon-neutral campus by 2050, and delving into our progress in implementing several energy and transportation related strategies.
When I spoke with pride about how we’ve made UConn’s very clean and efficient cogeneration facility the central energy source for an increasing number of campus buildings, the student skepticism about the cogen’s natural gas fuel source was palpable but polite. Nonetheless, I explained, our 25 MW cogen plant has displaced the use of less efficient boilers and generators, which used much more carbon-intensive petroleum diesel fuels, and it now supplies nearly 80 percent of the heat and power for our main campus.
The students had a similar reaction when I told them about UConn’s installation this past spring of a 400 kW UTC Power hydrogen fuel cell at our Depot Campus. The fuel cell extracts hydrogen from – you guessed it – natural gas. Then, through a catalytic process instead of combustion, it generates most of the electricity and some of the heat for the Depot extension of our main campus. Each year, this fuel cell will avoid the consumption of millions of gallons of cooling water and the emission of many air pollutants, including 800 tons of CO2, versus the conventional power sources that would be needed to produce a comparable amount of energy.
The REM students pointed out: “But natural gas is 100 percent fossil fuel! How can that even be a bridge to a truly sustainable strategy? Isn’t the U.S. just delaying the transition to renewable energy by switching from one fossil fuel to another, coal to natural gas?” I think most of them understood the economic and political realities in the U.S., and elsewhere around the globe, that have made the transition to renewable energy slower than any of us would like. But they raised good questions that led to a lively discussion. One student encouraged me to develop more ambitious interim carbon-reduction targets for UConn’s Climate Action Plan. I loved the students’ passion for renewable energy, and enjoyed our policy-level dialogue.
Dr. Juergen Steck, my principal Freiburg Uni host and counterpart, who is the “Umweltschutz” director overseeing both environmental compliance and sustainability, filled me in on the use of renewable energy in campus operations. He was one of the university project leaders charged with meeting the 550 kW goal of the Solar Uni initiative.
He and his staff of nine, including a climate protection manager, keep meticulous records and file detailed reports about greenhouse gas emissions from campus operations. They also maintain data about metered and un-metered energy use in campus buildings, as well as energy production from various sources, including solar power. At his desktop computer, he opened several Excel spreadsheets and graphs that had been prepared to ensure compliance with Germany’s climate protection laws.
In our conversations, Dr. Steck shared his concerns that the campus had literally run out of rooftop space for additional solar arrays. Based on the abundance of arrays and several green roofs already installed on campus buildings, he worried whether there would be any remaining rooftops available with the necessary characteristics: proper orientation to sunlight, structural integrity, and at least a 20-year remaining lifespan. As in the U.S., a number of Freiburg’s older campus buildings are protected by historic preservation laws and remain off-limits to solar panels.
Beyond solar, the rest of Freiburg Uni’s energy picture is also tinted green. Dr. Steck explained how the campus uses groundwater for geothermal cooling of half of its buildings. It’s a non-consumptive, non-contact cooling use of the naturally cold water drawn from the aquifer underlying the university’s campus. His department’s job is to make sure that the water is returned to the aquifer after its use, free of any chemicals or other contaminants and no more than 5 degrees Celsius warmer than when it was pumped out. For the rest of the campus’s heating and cooling needs, he told me that only recently, after a long and careful analysis, Freiburg Uni switched from burning coal at its central utility plant to burning biomass, comprised of wood chips from a sustainably-harvested local forest.
Despite all of these green energy attributes, I wondered how much the typical Freiburg undergrad was aware of the university’s commitment to sustainability and renewable resources. At UConn, we’ve just completed our Renewable Energy Strategic Plan for deploying demonstration-scale sustainable energy projects on our campus over the next five to seven years. For us, the public visibility and academic accessibility of future projects were, and will continue to be, important site selection criteria. We hope to integrate tours of these installations into various courses, from science and engineering to the humanities.
At Freiburg, on the other hand, none of the Solar Uni rooftop arrays was visible, much less accessible, to students or the general public. I was told the university had installed an energy dashboard, not at the student center or a large classroom building, but at the Rector’s inner-city office, blocks away from academic buildings and daily student traffic. Maybe when your campus is in the middle of Germany’s “Green City,” where renewable energy has flourished for decades and installations are commonplace, there isn’t as much of a need for high visibility demonstration projects.
Next: Final thoughts on aspects of campus sustainability at Freiburg University and UConn.