Sustainable UConn

By Rich Miller

How our values about the environment, clean energy, and social responsibility are greening the Husky Blue. Rich Miller is director of the Office of Environmental Policy.

Climate ‘Turmoil’ Compels Action

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy framed it right during one of his many televised storm emergency and recovery de-briefings, which, by their frequency alone, have largely defined his administration to-date. Speaking this time in the wake of Nemo, the record-setting blizzard of 2013, he proclaimed that we are already experiencing the devastating effects of not just climate change but “climate turmoil.”

During Malloy’s first three years as Governor, Connecticut has experienced two 100-year storms, one 50-year storm, and now a record-setting blizzard that dropped up to 40 inches of snow on parts of the state and closed schools and businesses for days. So, as predicted by climate scientists, storms have become more frequent and severe and storm surges along the coast have been more damaging because of sea level rise. Maybe the term “climate change” is no longer sufficiently compelling to motivate political action, because it implies a long, gradual, and deceptively non-threatening transition, reminiscent of that poor frog slowly boiling in the pot of water from the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Climate turmoil, on the other hand, signals an urgent call to arms.

State’s ‘Greener Future’ Workshop

Connecticut and UConn get the message, and have been leaders on climate action. Last week, I had the honor of introducing Dan Esty, Commissioner of the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), at a workshop co-sponsored by DEEP and Connecticut’s Clean Energy Finance & Investment Authority (CEFIA). The event was about funding a “green future” for higher education, and targeted an invited audience of presidents, VPs, provosts, deans, and facilities and sustainability directors from just about every public and private college and university in the state. The workshop was another example of the state’s proactive approach to educating key constituencies, whether homeowners, businesses, municipalities, or major institutional property owners, like colleges and universities, about state clean energy programs and energy efficiency incentives.

For nearly two decades, since his days as director of Yale’s Centers for Environmental Law & Policy and Business & the Environment, Esty has passionately advocated for climate action, and persuasively communicated about public policy solutions and strategic business opportunities for companies that develop green technologies and employ environmentally sustainable management practices. Now, as commissioner, Esty has overseen the effective consolidation of several state agencies that deal with energy and environmental issues under the DEEP umbrella. And he’s worked tirelessly the past three years, through a highly-motivated team in his office and at CEFIA, together with the legislature and the governor’s office, to promote the growth of cleaner, more affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy in Connecticut.

Recent Sustainable Energy Highlights at UConn

President Susan Herbst signs UConn's Climate Action Plan during the opening ceremony of "Climate Impact, Mitigation and Adaptation: A Reflection of Our Future" (CIMA), a symposium held on March 26, 2012. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

President Susan Herbst signs UConn’s Climate Action Plan during the opening ceremony of “Climate Impact, Mitigation and Adaptation: A Reflection of Our Future” (CIMA), a symposium held on March 26, 2012. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The state can count on UConn to be “all in” with these strategies. Last March, President Susan Herbst, who at the time had been at UConn less than a year, signed a resolution reaffirming the University’s commitment to its 2010 Climate Action Plan and making us the first U.S. college or university to add an Adaptation Section to its plan. So, in addition to carrying out many long-term Climate Action Plan measures for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, UConn is also stepping up its efforts to delineate and prepare for the global and local effects of climate change and to help communities better manage the environmental, economic, public health, property, and infrastructure risks.

President Herbst, center, with Provost Mun Choi, far right, dedicated the fuel cell last April, while state legislators and other officials joined in the ceremony. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

President Herbst, center, with Provost Mun Choi, far right, dedicated the fuel cell last April, while state legislators and other officials joined in the ceremony. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Along these lines, UConn partnered with the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technologies and several energy industry leaders to submit an application earlier this year for state funds that would enable us to create a clean energy “microgrid” at the Depot Campus. The goal of the microgrid is to enable the new 400 kW fuel cell to operate entirely off-grid or in “island mode,” in order to provide heat and power to certain “critical needs” facilities. These facilities could then offer public and emergency services in the event of an extended grid power outage.

Centralized heat and power vs. installing stand-alone emergency generators, boilers, and heaters maximizes efficiency, saves money, reduces our carbon footprint, and helps fund other campus green energy initiatives.

Centralized heat and power vs. installing stand-alone emergency generators, boilers, and heaters maximizes efficiency, saves money, reduces our carbon footprint, and helps fund other campus green energy initiatives.

As Esty pointed out at the conference, most of UConn’s main campus already functions as a microgrid.  Nearly 80 percent of the Storrs campus receives electricity, heat, and cooling from the central utility plant and its centerpiece, the cogeneration facility, which operate independently from the grid. In fact, our natural gas-fired, 25 MW cogen facility, which began operating in 2006, is so clean and efficient that it is defined as a Class 3 renewable resource under Connecticut’s Renewable Portfolio Standard law. That means, by its operation, UConn generates marketable renewable energy credits. Since the Renewable Portfolio Standard law requires a certain percentage of Class 3 renewable energy credits to be part of the standard portfolio for any company that provides energy in Connecticut, these credits have a guaranteed minimum market value.

The proceeds from these renewable energy credit sales have funded many of UConn’s Climate Action Plan measures, especially those focused on improving the energy efficiency of our buildings, which account for nearly 85 percent of UConn’s carbon footprint. And these measures have been significant – in the past two years alone, UConn has used renewable energy credit funds and captured applicable state rebates to complete retro-commissioning projects at 20 of our most energy-intensive buildings, and has retrofitted lighting in 80 buildings. Together these building efficiency efforts annually save more than $1.2 million in energy costs and avoid more than 6,000 tons of CO2 emissions!

You can see that these renewable energy credit sales, which serve as UConn’s sustainable energy revolving fund, are another compelling reason for centralizing even more of our campus on the central utility plant and cogen facility and resisting the temptation to install stand-alone emergency generators, boilers and other fuel-burning sources around campus. Connecting more campus buildings, old and new, to the central plant maximizes efficiency, saves money, reduces our carbon footprint, and helps fund other campus green energy initiatives. OEP recently drafted a guidance document explaining the cost, compliance and sustainability benefits that accrue when UConn departments and divisions avoid the proliferation of stand-alone generators and boilers and connect to the central utility plant.

A schematic of the Tech Park.

A schematic of the Tech Park.

Finally, under the leadership of Provost Mun Choi, UConn also plans to make green technologies, particularly in the energy and environmental sector, a cornerstone of the proposed UConn Tech Park. Sustainable energy partnerships developed with industry and institutional leaders will help spur green sector tenants and jobs at the Tech Park and at the first public/private research facility to be constructed there, the Innovation Partnership Building.

While the state legislature and agencies like DEEP and CEFIA are continually developing, carrying out, and refining incentive programs for renewable energy and energy efficiency, there has been a relative lack of action in Washington, D.C.  Is it possible that evidence of climate turmoil occurring throughout the nation in recent years, backed by the overwhelming judgment of science, has finally created momentum for federal climate action? During his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, President Obama referred to the devastating effects of recent extreme weather events, pointed out that 12 of the hottest years in history have occurred since 1998, and reinforced a new hope for federal climate action:

I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.