Slow down, green movement

Environmental groups need to offer solutions before they stir the public frenzy.
By
  • Nora Leinen
March 03, 2010

For those interested in researching cutting-edge environmental and sustainable technology, the University of Minnesota is increasingly becoming the place to be.
President Bob Bruininks has signed the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which focuses on sustainability and carbon neutrality. Climate neutrality means offsetting any carbon-producing activities with activities that reduce and capture carbon.
The University is committed to a legally binding emissions reduction through the Chicago Climate Exchange. Also, University Facilities Management’s Energy Management group has pledged, through the “It All Adds Up” campaign, to reduce its energy consumption by 5 percent by the end of 2010. The University is projected to meet or surpass those goals with annual savings of about $2.5 million.
The Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment has provided more than $24 million to 170 projects, supporting more than 430 researchers here.
This is on top of individual departments supporting research on environmental and sustainability projects. The University often tries to make its facilities available as a “living laboratory” to put some of its research findings into action.
The University Sustainability Goals and Outcomes Committee was formed specifically to meet regent requirements of sustainability, but the committee is trying to gather all of these programs together to understand what has been done at the University to encourage energy efficiency and sustainability. The committee will set goals for further action based on the programs already in place.
Despite these efforts, the University still uses coal for much of its operational energy.
It is this reliance on coal that new student group Campus Beyond Coal takes issue with. CBC President Siri Simons says the goal of being coal-free in production and consumption may be feasible by 2015, considering the rates other institutions have been able to convert.
The University of Wisconsin, the most comparable institution, has been able to convert its coal plants, which provided most of its energy, to biofuel due to a $251 million initiative by Wisconsin’s governor. CBC would like to see the University’s steam plants also converted from coal power to alternative energies such as biofuel.
The problem with applying this solution to the University of Minnesota is that our two steam plants are only part of our energy consumption, and most of our power is purchased from Xcel Energy. The University is bound by regulation to buy any energy it needs from Xcel.
Xcel produces several different types of energy, and the University could request its energy comes from more alternative sources. But at a cost of $8 million more a year, Xcel doesn’t even have the capacity to match the University’s consumption with alternative energy, according to Michael Berthelsen, University associate vice president of facilities management.
University Sustainability Coordinator Amy Short says efforts like the “It All Adds Up” campaign show that the University is working to improve its energy consumption.
“Every bit of energy we don’t use is helping reduce coal burned in Minnesota,” Short said, “because our footprint from our electricity purchased is bigger than our footprint produced by our steam plant.”
Berthelsen also outlined market problems with assuming an easy transition to biofuel.
“We currently have a standing order to buy any biofuels that anyone is selling” said Berthelsen. “The ability to use or get off of various fuels depends on the ability to find them.”
And then, of course, there’s the money.
“To move away from coal is a significant financial investment today … just from the standpoint of, do I raise fees today or do I increase tuition today for the purposes of that?” Short said.
“We can’t do that and be fiscally responsible to the students. So we need solutions that are both reliable and feasible.”
Without a $251 million state initiative, we would need a miraculous and meticulous plan for when and how this $8 million-per-year increase in energy costs would be made possible. However, CBC doesn’t have one.
“Essentially, our group isn’t advocating to the administration a specific policy,” Simmons said. “Only because we don’t want to go to them with a list of alternatives, only to have them strike them down one by one for various nuanced reasons.”
But how can you advocate change if you don’t know what it looks like? CBC is only the most recent environmental group to point out faults without providing feasible solutions. Over the years, environmental movements have been quick to point the finger and slow to show the way.
We are not all environmental experts, and I look to experts like the University and CBC for leadership in innovation and progress. But making demands without making an effort to reach them is just passing the buck.
So, next time an issue causes green frenzy, slow down, do the research and promote a plan with funding. Rather than show us a problem, I for one would appreciate a solution.

Nora Leinen welcomes comments at nleinen@mndaily.com.

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