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November 27, 2023 Focus: Clean Energy

As colleges try to reduce carbon footprints, clean energy technology costs become potential roadblock

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER UConn President Radenka Maric said she is pushing for additional state investment in STEM programs and facilities.

Hundreds of University of Connecticut students have been vocal about how they want the school to improve its carbon footprint.

About 200 students took part in a rally on UConn’s Storrs campus Nov. 14, holding signs with messages like, “End Fossil Fuels,” and “Declare a Climate Emergency.”

A petition titled “Tell UConn: No More Fossil Fuels,” launched in September and as of mid-November had 1,574 signatures. The petition asserts that until UConn becomes fossil fuel-free, “it will remain complicit in the climate crisis; exploiting people, our economy, and our planet.”

Colin Rosadino, a UConn law student who started the petition, said it garnered 1,000 signatures in its first week. Students have already submitted it to UConn’s Board of Trustees, but it remains open and people continue to sign it.

“Clearly, students care about this,” Rosadino said. “These are the goals students want UConn to achieve.”

Colleges throughout Connecticut have been trying to make their campuses more sustainable to reduce negative impact on the environment.

To date, 2023 has been a record warm year for the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A 2022 Pew Research Center survey showed 69% of U.S. adults prioritize developing alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, over expanding the production of oil, coal and natural gas.

Attorney Lee D. Hoffman of Pullman & Comley, who chairs the firm and has focused his practice on the development of energy projects, said colleges face challenges as they try to reduce their carbon footprints.

“Colleges and universities are feeling financial pressures, such as from a shrinking pool of students seeking to attend,” Hoffman said. “That means having to make tougher bottom-line decisions.”

Weather-proofing buildings, using energy-efficient lighting, and having better insulation are practices that will give a faster return on investment in terms of energy savings, he noted.

“Those will pay for themselves more quickly, so it’s a smarter fiscal move,” Hoffman said. “It gets more difficult when the return on your investment is more long term.”

A multimillion-dollar hydrogen fuel cell, for example, will take much longer for a university to make back its investment, Hoffman said.

UConn President Radenka Maric said while new technologies are expensive, “not doing anything is not acceptable.”

“In the end it would cost us more — future generations will not have the opportunities that we have today (to address climate change),” Maric said.

Students organized a rally on Nov. 14, calling for the University of Connecticut to be more transparent about its plans to reduce its carbon footprint.

In December 2022, Maric announced plans for UConn to achieve carbon neutrality on campus by 2030, and zero-carbon status by 2040, with specific initiatives to be outlined in a Sustainability Action Plan.

At the time, officials indicated the plan would be released on Maric’s website in the spring of 2023. As of November, it had not been made public.

UConn students behind the push for change say they want to see this plan and more transparency from university administrators. Rosadino noted how institutions such as the University of Massachusetts and Princeton University have climate or sustainability action plans published online, which detail their progress.

In response to students’ concerns, Maric said she encourages them to get involved, and work with the university, its faculty and experts to be part of the solution.

“Students are instrumental in our success because they are the future,” Maric said. “They’re very concerned, and they want to see effort. They want to see action. I’m always supportive of young people and working with them.”

UConn campus changes

Maric said UConn is pursuing a combination of green technologies to help reach its carbon neutrality goals, including fuel cells, geothermal and solar energy and lithium-ion battery technology.

UConn’s Carbon Reduction Working Group is developing an action plan with energy-saving and clean-energy initiatives to help the school meet its carbon goals, she said.

UConn’s Board of Trustees in September approved spending a combined $21.5 million for new fuel cells on campus that will generate electrical and thermal energy. That includes $6.5 million for Danbury-based FuelCell Energy, which will install a hydrogen fuel cell to service the Innovation Partnership Building in Storrs.

The board also approved $15 million for VFS Energy Services LLC for fuel cells to service the Putnam Refectory, a resident dining hall, and Hilltop residence halls complex. In 2022, UConn installed a fuel cell at its Depot Campus in Storrs.

In October, UConn’s Board of Trustees formally expressed its support for sustainability and clean energy initiatives.

Hydrogen power is a “key pillar” of the university’s sustainability initiatives and carbon goals, Maric said.

UConn also plans to transition from a gasoline-powered to electric-powered vehicle fleet that uses either fuel cells or batteries. UConn has expanded the availability of electric vehicle chargers, and will continue to do so in the coming years, Maric said.

In September, the Board of Trustees approved plans to install 18 additional electric vehicle chargers.

A new hydrogen fuel dispenser will be installed to serve UConn utility vehicles and the public’s hydrogen-powered vehicles.

The university is also diverting dining hall food waste for conversion into renewable biofuel energy and compost through anaerobic digestion, according to Maric.

When new buildings are constructed, they are designed with UConn’s energy goals in mind, Maric said. UConn’s “Science 1” building, which opened earlier this year, has solar panels on its roof and was designed as an LEED gold-certified sustainable building. The university also aims to upgrade existing buildings to be more energy efficient.

Maric said UConn plans to increase the use of solar arrays on campus where possible.

When asked how much it will cost UConn to achieve its carbon goals, Maric declined to give an estimate.

“You can’t put one price tag on it,” she said. “All these new technologies are expensive.”

UConn is pursuing partnerships with companies such as Eversource, along with funding from the state and federal governments and donors to help achieve its goals, she said.

A broader movement

Other Connecticut colleges also have sustainability initiatives underway.

Earlier this year, Southern Connecticut State University finished construction of its new $52.4 million School of Business building, which was designed with sustainability in mind.

The SCSU building is powered by solar panels and geothermal wells for heating and cooling. It uses smart lighting, with lights automatically dimming or brightening based on available sunlight.

The building also has occupancy and vacancy sensors, and lights turn off automatically when a room remains unoccupied.

Victoria Verderame, assistant director of media relations at Southern, said the university has fuel cells and now produces about 60% of its own energy. It also has solar panels in its Fitch Street parking lot.

Yale University has indicated it is committed to emitting zero greenhouse gases by 2050. Yale anticipates it will require “large-scale” investments in buildings, equipment and technology.

Yale is among about 1,600 institutions worldwide on the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database.

In a recent example of its efforts, in October, Yale Divinity School broke ground on a new zero-carbon residence hall called the “Living Village,” slated to open in the summer of 2025.

The project has been designed to meet the standards of the Living Building Challenge, an international certification system that promotes sustainable design and construction.

The new building will have features such as a net positive carbon, energy and water footprint, and construction that uses recycled and “environmentally benign materials,” the university said.

Quinnipiac University also has sustainability efforts underway, including in its building projects.

Its new under-construction School of Business is designed to optimize energy use, including using energy-efficient LED interior and exterior lights.

United Illuminating and Southern Connecticut Gas provided Quinnipiac with nearly $1 million in incentives for energy efficiency investments on campus, and the university has made upgrades such as kitchen hood and exhaust-fan controls, new LED lighting, and demand controls on ventilation systems.

The upgrades cost about $1.5 million, though after the incentives and an anticipated annual cost savings of $172,000 from the improvements, Quinnipiac expects the investment will pay for itself in about three years.

Quinnipiac University President Judy Olian said the university, which has a Sustainability Implementation Committee, has an ongoing effort to “reduce energy waste by being more efficient with its energy consumption.”

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