by David Hastings
As world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP-26, the UN climate summit, the challenges they face are huge. The outcome will to a large extent determine how we will survive on a hotter planet and whether even worse levels of warming can be averted.
Here in North Central Florida, we are witnessing our own climate drama at one of our most respected educational institutions, the University of Florida. UF recognizes its mission to educate, inform and be a good global citizen.
According to University of Florida’s website, UF is “working toward major institutional changes to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2025.” The recently updated UF Campus Action Plan 2.0 states that “UF has a special imperative to explore bold innovative solutions that address the environmental, social and economic risks posed by climate impacts.”
Then why is UF proposing a new 34 MW fossil gas-fired Central Energy plant to produce electricity and steam? While the price of solar energy has fallen nearly 90 percent over the past decade, the cost of fossil gas has doubled over the past year, and continues to climb.
Many energy experts predict that the price of fossil gas will never be as low as they have been in the past, making the proposed gas plant a financial blunder as well as contributing to the climate crisis.
Susan Glickman, Florida Director for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says that this is like “buying an 8-track cassette player to power the school,” meaning it is outdated technology.
It’s not just a bad idea, it’s a financial boondoggle known as a stranded asset, which is a growing concern as climate becomes increasingly more relevant. A stranded asset is something—like a power plant—that once had value but no longer does, due to an external change, such as the climate crisis. Imagine paying $200 for an 8-track cassette player, and then finding out two years later that music is no longer produced for your machine. Bad purchase. These days, I’m streaming my music. And so are you.
Five or ten years ago, when the idea for a more efficient combined cycle gas plant was conceived, it probably seemed like a good idea. Optimistic estimates are that the system will be 25 percent more efficient than the older system. But now, the cost of solar has plummeted, battery storage is a reality, and solar integrated with grid scale storage from 50 MW and up to 300 MW is being built by utilities in Florida and across the US. These combined systems reduce the need for additional fossil fuel generation, increase resilience and serve as a viable alternative.
With President Biden’s recent proposal to develop large-scale wind farms along much of the US coastline, and taller, more efficient wind turbines with associated price drops, we can expect that in the next decade or less, offshore wind power will be an important part of the energy mix. The Biden administration aims to have 30 GW of offshore wind in the next decade.
Why so much concern about burning gas? Ten and twenty years ago, it was considered a “bridge fuel” to replace coal until renewables were ready. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a fast-acting greenhouse gas; in the first 20 years after it is released methane is 80 times more effective as a heat trapping gas than carbon dioxide. There are methane leaks at every stage of the natural gas production and transportation process. According to a major recent UN report, in order to tackle climate change, natural gas has got to go. Rapidly! Clean energy alternatives are ready.
How have other similar institutions dealt with the challenge of disruptive technologies in the energy sector? In 2015, Stanford University replaced their gas-fired power plant and the traditional network of underground steam and chilled-water pipes with grid-sourced electricity, two-thirds of which comes from renewable sources. As electricity from the grid becomes increasingly from renewable and carbon-free sources, Stanford is no longer locked into outdated, expensive, polluting energy. Stanford also signed 25-year power purchase agreements for new on- and off-campus solar projects to supply over half of their electricity. The innovative facility yields compelling results: greenhouse gas emissions are slashed by 68 percent, fossil fuel use reduced by 65 percent. Why can’t UF develop a similar innovative system?
While science tells us that climate change is irrefutable, science also tells us that it is not too late to take action to avoid or reduce the worst impacts. If we are going to come close to meeting our climate targets, fossil gas must be rapidly phased out. And yet, UF has plans to build a gas-powered power plant to produce heat and steam, rather than develop innovative solutions. If UF goes ahead with their plan, they will be stuck with a stranded asset, and saddled with a debt burden long before the lifespan of the gas power plant has passed.
The consequences of the climate crisis are beyond dispute. We need to move beyond so called “bridge fuels” which were mediocre alternatives 20 years ago, and won’t satisfy our climate goals. UF can have a gas-fired energy plant OR it can be true to its climate commitment. It cannot do both.
Send a customizable letter (https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1316) to UF President Dr. Kent Fuchs about this misguided action by the Board of Trustees.
Dr. David Hastings is a climate scientist and member of the Sierra Club Suwannee-St. Johns (SSJ) Executive Committee. This article was published in the November 2021 SSJ newsletter.