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Missed opportunities combatting climate change

Posted December 23rd, 2019 to Blog

I recently watched part of the Hancher Auditorium parking lot ripped up and repaved at the University of Iowa. With the university community well aware of the impacts of flooding, I was surprised by the missed opportunity to rebuild the parking lot with more water retention features like bioswales or permeable pavers. We know that heavy rainfall impacts in Iowa will only grow as climate change accelerates.[1]

At the same time, I realized these types of interventions are expensive and perhaps outside the routine maintenance budget. So I turned my attention to other ideas for the campus: solar power opportunities and the university’s pledge to combat climate change through renewable power generation. Surely such an ambitious proposal would have resources enough to invest in solar power generation.

In 2017, UI President Bruce Harreld announced a goal to increase the university’s use of renewable resources for power and steam production and reduce coal firing for steam and energy production, and entirely phasing out coal by 2025.[2] This laudable goal addresses climate change, makes the university’s operations more sustainable, and improves air quality in Iowa City. Why not enhance this goal with solar panels?

The President’s message noted that the university would rely on a combination of biomass firing for renewable resources to hit a target of 40 percent of energy production by 2020. The university has pursued various options of biomass to be fired alongside coal for the time being (and presumably to be fired by itself once coal is eliminated). These options are:

      • Oat hulls, the byproduct of industrial processes, currently sourced from Quaker Oats in nearby Cedar Rapids. This fuel source is readily available, and by reusing formerly discarded ingredients the UI can prevent methane emissions from decomposition while burning a carbon-neutral fuel.
      • Miscanthus grass,[3] a non-native, but non-invasive grass, is often used for biomass around the world due to its high energy content and quick growing nature. The university has planted a few collection areas and buys harvest from local producers.
      • Energy pellets, another industrial byproduct that can be fired alongside coal. Like oat hulls, adding another use to an already ongoing industrial process is more sustainable than burning a non-renewable fuel source.

On its face, this strategy seems like an innovative use of natural ingredients that are carbon neutral and close by, obtainable from regional industry and agriculture.

But it’s still only 40 percent of the plan. Where does the remaining 60 percent come from? Natural gas,[4] which is “cleaner” than coal firing for particulate matter and CO2 , is readily available, and adds a power predictability that is hard to get from some renewable resources. But should natural gas be 60 percent of the university’s energy portfolio, when renewables could play a bigger role?

The university’s Office of Sustainability mentions, but dismisses, greater use of wind power and solar power. Both are mentioned as being implemented in a limited fashion on campus as demonstration projects for research purposes, but said to be too resource intensive (land and money) to fully replace other energy production methods for campus uses.

The message is a concern. If a complete replacement strategy were a qualifying criteria, why would it not apply to biomass firing sources as well. If not, why would the UI not consider solar and wind as a smaller scale, partial contribution to the university’s energy portfolio?

Other universities, including Maryland and Michigan State[5] have both solved cost concerns with public-private partnerships and power purchasing agreements. Indeed, UI researchers already note that the kilowatt cost of solar is below that of more traditional production requirements in some states, with the implication that similar cost comparisons will become more attainable through the country.[6]

Given the similarities between the UI and Michigan State (MSU) — both large public universities in the Midwest with similar climates and both governed by a quasi-public Board or Regents — the MSU example with solar power may prove fruitful. MSU followed the lead of several U.S. universities (including UC San Diego[7]) in deploying solar panels above parking lots on campus.

Solar could bring several benefits if installed at the Hancher lot, beyond power generation. Besides vehicle protection, it could offer research opportunities on solar generation, grid distribution methods, and power storage mechanisms for engineering faculty and students.[8]

Indeed, the University of Iowa already has experience in similar solar deployments. Its Facilities Management department already operates a solar power charging station for university vehicles, just on a much smaller scale.[9] The university has many surface parking lots that could reduce ongoing university expenses by harnessing the air rights just 10 feet above existing lots.

If this isn’t incentive enough, the university is ranked eighth in the Big Ten Conference for green power generation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[10] Surely Hawkeye pride can carry us to be No. 1. Forget Hancher. Perhaps the lots around Kinnick Stadium could be ground zero for a Hawkeye solar project — with a slogan ready to go: America Needs Solar.

[1] https://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2019Research/190905-Floods-Climate.html
[2] https://now.uiowa.edu/2017/02/ui-announces-it-will-be-coal-free-2025
[3] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/sites/www.facilities.uiowa.edu/files/wysiwyg_uploads/hawkeyecampusmiscanthus.pdf
[4] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/energy-environment/renewable-energy
[5] https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2019/msu-helps-big-ten-achieve-largest-collective-green-energy-use/
[6] https://dailyiowan.com/2018/03/19/solar-energy-lights-up-on-campus/
[7] https://www.borregosolar.com/commercial-solar-systems/university-of-california-san-diego
[8] https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2017/construction-begins-on-msu-solar-array-project/
[9] https://www.facilities.uiowa.edu/sustainable-energy-discovery-district
[10] https://www.epa.gov/greenpower/college-and-university-challenge

Joseph Wilensky is a Master’s Degree candidate in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. He was an intern at the Iowa Policy Project during the fall semester 2019.