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Seeding Climate Leadership

May 2017

By Karla Hignite

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An energy expert shares tips for growing a bottom-up comprehensive approach to carbon neutrality. 

For the past decade, Wendell Brase spent an increasing amount of his time as the administrative vice chancellor for the University of California (UC), Irvine, on energy efficiency and energy procurement initiatives. Now he focuses his attention full time on these and a host of other resource-conserving and carbon-reduction efforts as UCI’s associate chancellor for sustainability. Brase also chairs UC’s Energy Services Governing Board and serves as co-chair of UC’s Global Climate Leadership Council, focused on driving progress across the UC System on carbon neutrality and broader sustainability efforts that encompass green building, clean energy, transportation, operations, waste reduction and recycling, purchasing, food services, and water.

The UC System—comprising 10 campuses, five medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories, and a statewide agriculture and natural resources program—has a combined annual operating budget of $29 billion. That packs not only an economic wallop; it also poses a significant carbon problem. To tackle its own environmental impacts, the UC System is taking a team approach, collaborating across campuses and disciplines to develop effective, practical solutions that it can implement to scale in pursuit of its ambitious goal of emitting net zero greenhouse gases from its buildings and vehicle fleet by 2025.

In this article, Brase shares the basic principles that undergird the UC System’s approach to addressing the challenge of climate change.

Pull Your Smartest People Into the Room

One reason UC campuses have been able to coalesce around a shared commitment for achieving carbon neutrality is because there is a foundational structure in place to support wide idea exchange and collaboration, says Brase. “Across our university system there are so many distinguished faculty working on every aspect of climate research, not only in earth system science or energy, but within every school and campus—from law to public health, biology, engineering, social ecology, humanities, and the arts,” says Brase. “It has been truly remarkable to see the keen interest from faculty who are focusing their research to work together on solutions.”

While the amount of dialogue required to achieve consensus takes time, that lengthy democratic process is exactly the kind of socialization that is important to build robust engagement that will sustain efforts over the long term, believes Brase. UC’s Global Climate Leadership Council includes issue-specific working groups composed of representatives from all campuses that propose policy changes, share best practices, and maintain momentum on implementation of approved actions. Likewise, groups focused on student engagement, energy services, and applied research—among UC’s “pillars” for charting progress on attaining its 2025 goal—bring together individuals who otherwise might never have had the opportunity to work alongside one another, explains Brase. This intra-institutional, cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas has been one of the great benefits of UC’s problem-solving structure, he adds.

Learn to Aim at Moving Targets

The road to carbon neutrality is a journey of discovery, suggests Brase. “Very often what we start to do leads to opportunities or roadblocks we didn’t know existed.” One bright spot has been solar power, which has vastly improved in quality and cost-effectiveness over the past decade, says Brase. “We have already exceeded by 250 percent the goal we established 10 years ago for the amount of on-site solar generation we thought would be feasible for the University of California.”

At the same time, new challenges have surfaced. As one example, increases in methane released into the atmosphere, due to a variety of activities that include the rise in hydraulic fracturing, threaten to derail progress on stemming greenhouse gas emissions. “There is a fair amount of urgency around this issue and it presents a new layer of requisite action for institutions,” suggests Brase. “Going forward we all will have to remain flexible about solutions.”

Take Full Advantage of the Efficiency Curve

One area that has proven immensely effective for most institutions seeking to curtail emissions is energy efficiency, says Brase. UCI has been a champion of deep energy efficiency, investing in projects that result in cuts to energy consumption by half or more. “A decade ago we thought that, taking all energy efficiency measures possible, we might be able to reduce our carbon footprint by 10 or 15 percent,” says Brase. “We have already demonstrated that it is possible to reach a 50 percent reduction in energy consumption campuswide, maximizing efficiency measures by making buildings ‘smart’ using sensors and software.”

Early adopters took some financial risk on big project upgrades, but now the benefits are there and they are real, argues Brase. “Deep energy efficiency is no longer a theory.” Even better news, notes Brase, is that deploying such measures is much more economical today because the associated technologies and components have improved significantly. “AC has become more efficient, heat pumps are more reliable, demand-based controls for lighting and HVAC are smarter, lab freezers are now two to three times as efficient as a decade ago, LED lighting is not only more efficient but can also produce a better quality of light, and metering is more precise and less expensive,” says Brase. “Essentially, all the software and components to make buildings smart and keep them smart have come down in price.”

Yet one more factor in the equation is the potential for avoided capital investment, says Brase. A deep energy efficiency program sharply reduces the load on the central plant and energy infrastructure of a campus, deferring the need to invest capital in new chillers, pumps, transformers, distribution infrastructure, and turbines for decades, explains Brase.

Engineer All Possible Solutions

Finding the most effective solutions for reducing emissions requires lots of modeling, and campuses are ideal places to scale up and test proof of concept, notes Brase. Because much of the research that UC is conducting in the area of carbon neutrality is attractive to outside sponsors, a good bit of it can be supported through external fundraising. Initial feasibility studies help identify which strategies look most promising and most applicable to implement at scale, says Brase.

For instance, across UC System campuses you will find numerous, very efficient, combined heat and power plants—representing an enormous investment—that currently operate on natural gas, explains Brase. “Right now, we are experimenting with how to partially decarbonize the fuel source by injecting hydrogen into the natural gas supply.” Part of this experiment—using an electrolyzer funded by the UCI’s natural gas provider—is testing how much hydrogen can be mixed with the natural gas and still maintain effective performance. “The possibility of partially decarbonizing natural gas would carry benefits well beyond the university,” notes Brase.

Think Beyond the Grid

While all 10 UC campuses have committed to a common target date goal for neutrality, not all are rolling out the same solutions at the same pace. Yet, the broad sweep of solutions being tested allows the benefits of various approaches to be applied elsewhere, explains Brase. Currently, institutions across the UC System are experimenting with microgrid development and energy storage solutions.

In fact, effective energy storage is another as-yet-unsolved game changer on the neutrality front with the potential to significantly reduce emissions, says Brase. “No single type of storage will work best in all locations or for every situation.” In addition to battery storage, UC is demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of chilled water storage, as well as hydrogen storage, notes Brase.

Leave No Job Behind

Those who’ve been hard at work reducing campus emissions for a decade, or longer, know that new skills are often required as part of the process. Colleges and universities must consider the ripple effects on their workforce of any big energy or infrastructure changes, says Brase. “At UCI we’ve made our buildings exceedingly efficient and smart, with sensors and software that now measure close to 500,000 discrete data points every five seconds.” Along the way in that transition, university supervisors realized that their traditional tradespeople needed digital skills to be effective in this new environment. For instance, an electrician doesn’t need to write the code for lighting controls, but he or she does need to be familiar with digital protocols and interfaces, and locksmiths must understand how to navigate digital security systems in an environment where carved keys are no longer used. In fact, most trades now require “digital literacy” in order to keep smart buildings smart, explains Brase.

In response to emerging skills gaps, UCI has partnered with Irvine Valley College to develop apprenticeship programs for both mid-career and entry-level workers. The university brought together campus engineers, organized labor, and peer reviewers to help develop the curriculum, and the UCI campus is now being used for some of the hands-on training.

Follow the Science

The UC System is leading by example for its state, and the nation, as a test bed of applied research and discovery for addressing climate change. In many respects, it is also serving as a front-runner in global efforts to rein in what more are awakening to as the potentially devastating—and at the very least, ecosystem-altering—consequences of a warming climate worldwide. From more extreme weather events across the globe, to the vulnerability of water systems, to an influx of refugees resulting from sea-level rise and other altered ecosystems—change is forthcoming, and higher education leadership must be part of the effort to explain how the future may be quite different, says Brase.

“In California, we have the privilege of supportive legislative and regulatory bodies and legislative leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, who are committed to grounding environmental policy on good science,” says Brase. Yet, he realizes that the political environment surrounding climate change varies by state. “Anything we, as business officers, can do to depoliticize the science and support a view that carbon neutrality policies and actions should be based on science will help our institutions achieve their neutrality goals,” says Brase. For instance, energy efficiency should not become a political issue when the financial benefits alone of deep energy efficiency projects have been demonstrated time and again.

Brase urges business officers to likewise emphasize the co-benefits of taking action. Cost savings resulting from efficiency measures—which typically address deferred maintenance concerns simultaneously—can be plowed back into other institution priorities. “As business officers, we ought to be emphasizing good stewardship of resources in everything we do.”

Organize and Prioritize Funding

Stakeholder support takes time, but it shouldn’t take forever, argues Brase. “One of the hardest parts of any process is getting started. Especially as the goals get harder to reach, leaders must band together with a great deal of resolve.”

As is the case with most attempts to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions, the low-hanging fruit gets plucked first. “These projects tend to be educational and allow for the kinds of behavioral changes that do have an important educational component for campus stakeholders,” notes Brase. What quickly becomes evident, however, is that the harder stuff is going to require significant capital investment in various forms. “At some point, every institution must come to grips with the need for large-scale capital investment, and that usually means getting people to think about long-term and life-cycle costs,” says Brase. “Institution leaders must recognize that the final 20 percent of emissions reduction might cost 100 percent more than the first 80 percent, and be way more challenging,” he adds.

Even as the strategies and tactics for reducing emissions will vary from one institution to the next, so will the models for financing initiatives. The hard truth is that there is no easy, fast, or inexpensive way to achieve neutrality, states Brase. Since substantial capital must be invested once the simpler actions are completed, Brase asserts that business officers play the most pivotal role in any college or university in determining whether the institution ultimately attains carbon neutrality.

For instance, business officers are needed to explore financing tools that do not compromise an institution’s overall debt capacity, while structuring energy efficiency retrofit projects that create valuable co-benefits that enhance their financial value—notably, by addressing deferred maintenance of building systems and campus infrastructure, and deferring or avoiding capital costs by freeing up capacity by making these systems more efficient, explains Brase. “All these decisions and trade-offs require a willingness to break away from status-quo practices of the past. And, business officers are in the leadership roles that will be central to comprehending the scale, complexity, and creativity of solutions needed to demonstrate higher education’s commitment to global climate solutions.”

KARLA HIGNITE, New York City, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

Related Topics

Finding the most effective solutions for reducing emissions requires lots of modeling, and campuses are ideal places to scale up and test proof of concept.