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Clean energy can power UF, save money

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The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released its latest climate report. The IPCC bluntly warns: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to ensure a livable future. »

Although it is global in scope, Florida was repeatedly used in the report as an example where the impacts of climate change are already being felt. Indeed, the Sunshine State is America’s star child for climate impacts with tidal flooding, extreme heat, stronger hurricanes and dying coral reefs. While it is possible to reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, we are told that it can be very expensive.

But sometimes it is possible to save money and do the right thing. Here in Gainesville, a beloved institution is choosing a more expensive, less climate-friendly option. The University of Florida is proposing to build a natural gas-fired power plant to replace aging infrastructure.

The Duke Energy cogeneration plant on the University of Florida campus.  Its closure led UF to seek a partner to build a new factory.

The main component of natural gas, methane, retains 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Recent studies reveal methane leak from gas pipelines is much worse than we thought. There are leaks in gas fields, where fossil gas is extracted, leaks along the network of transmission pipelines, and leaks in cities from pipelines that wind under streets.

Although the proposed facility is estimated to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to the current energy system, UF can do much better. UF graduate Dr. Sarah Toth, an environmental engineer who now works at MRIhas just written a report detailing how the electricity produced by the proposed gas-fired power plant could be generated by 100% clean energy at almost half the cost and with much less harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The main discovery of MRI report is that the cost of 100% clean energy is $120 million, much less than the $235 million projected cost of the Powerhouse. The report shows how a combined 105 megawatt portfolio of energy efficiency improvements, solar storage and battery power could reliably supply the needed electrical power.

How would that work? First, energy efficiency improvements are made so that buildings use less energy. This was done at UF’s Reitz Union in 2014 with great success: energy consumption dropped by over 50% after the renovation, saving UF over $550,000 per year. Improving building efficiency is a fundamental first step in any effort to reduce energy consumption.

Students rally against UF's proposed gas-fired power plant project.

In the RMI report, solar is the main source of electricity; large-scale photovoltaic solar panels with a nominal capacity of 72 MW would be installed. Luckily, when it’s hot in Florida and cooling is needed the most, the sun usually shines and the solar panels generate plenty of electricity. The cost of solar has fallen, 85% drop in the last decade.

To complement the clean energy portfolio, battery storage is used to provide electricity at night when the sun is not shining. Battery storage has also seen dramatic cost declines and technological advancements. The same type of battery that powers your laptop can provide full-scale power after the sun goes down.

Critics say the steam produced by the gas plant is essential to campus operations, as the steam is used to heat the buildings’ cooled air. Although this legacy method has been used for decades, similar institutions are moving away from this inefficient and outdated approach.

Before moving forward with a new fossil fuel power plant, UF should carefully assess whether a clean energy option could provide lower cost electricity with significantly fewer health and climate impacts. The world of power delivery has changed dramatically over the past decade. Renewables and battery storage are now economically viable, while the planetary risks of the status quo – the burning of fossil fuels – are starkly apparent.

The recent IPCC report shows that “people and the planet are reeling from climate change“, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres. He called the report “an atlas of human suffering” and criticized world leaders’ response as a “criminal abdication”.

Although we have pushed the planet to the brink, it is not too late. Every action we take to reduce carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases as soon as possible puts us on the path to reversing the tide of climate change. UF has an amazing opportunity to save money and do the right thing for the planet.

Wendell Porter is a retired UF lecturer and professional engineer. David Hastings is a retired marine climatologist and geochemist.

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