Fight the Power: Thoughts on Wesleyan’s Power Plant Proposal

Those who have not attended the minimally publicized meetings regarding the administration’s plans to build a new natural gas power plant on campus—it is time you paid attention.

After the Snowpocalyspe of last October, President Roth mandated that the University strive to reduce the risk of losing schooldays in the event of a similar weather emergency in the future. Some administrators and Physical Plant staff developed a plan to construct a natural gas co-generation power plant near Freeman Athletic Center to supplement a similar plant that Wesleyan built in 2008 on the corner of Williams and High Streets. This new plant, they claim, is necessary to allow us to go into “island mode” and avoid a blackout during the increasingly common extreme weather events. For a combination of logistical, budgetary, and moral reasons, I argue otherwise.

First, some background. The plan was set on trajectory behind closed doors, without input of the community or students, until Evan Weber ’13 gleaned through a comment made in passing at a sustainability meeting that this was being proposed. In fact, Wesleyan’s new Sustainability Coordinator, Jen Kleindienst, hadn’t heard of it either until about a week before Weber. By the time Weber organized an emergency organizing meeting, Wesleyan had already hired a firm to site and start designing the plant. As Weber told the Argus, “I want to start a conversation about the power plant with all constituents because students, professors, and other members of the community have been largely left out of the discussion.”

So why not have that discussion now?

There are many problems with the proposed plant, which are laid out in a recent Wespeak written by a few concerned students, including Weber and myself. These are what I believe to be some of the most compelling issues at hand:

  1. Budget. Market analyses show that the price of natural gas is going to inflate and clean energy prices are going to decline. Therefore, the figures and predictions driving this decision may be faulty. It does not make sense to invest in this plant, which will be around for at least 15 years—and likely much longer.
  2. Infrastructure. By investing in natural gas, we are not only not investing in clean energy alternatives, but also committing to continue down a path of fossil fuels, ignoring our commitment to addressing the impending (and in many ways, present) climate crisis. In the long run, this may result in an even greater total greenhouse gas footprint by inadvertently stifling our ambitions to switch to zero-carbon energy sources.
  3. Greenhouse Gases. Natural gas actually does have a much greater greenhouse gas footprint than most studies show. The hydrofracking extraction of natural gas releases methane, which is over 21 times more potent in terms of global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Taking this calculation into account, natural gas has a significantly higher greenhouse gas footprint than more conventional fossil fuels.

In the end, I see this as a horrifically ironic means of dealing with the effects of human-caused climate chaos. Committing to more greenhouse gases in order to deal with the ramifications of generations of greenhouse gas emissions represents narrow and shortsighted problem-solving. We don’t need to build this plant now, and doing so may further secure a dim future for both ourselves and generations to come.

Wesleyan claims to be committed to carbon neutrality by 2050—and has even sent three students to the U.N. climate convention in Qatar, which is taking place right now. The co-generation power plant proposal undermines that commitment.

Read the Wespeak below and let us know what you think about the issue. What is our responsibility as students to engage with issues regarding Wesleyan’s energy, climate, and emergency response policies?

From Friday’s Argus:

In a university setting, there are very good reasons for having heat and electricity in an emergency situation (providing shelter to the community, preserving scientific experiments and intellectual property, keeping pipes from freezing, etc.). The University is proposing to construct a new natural gas cogeneration power plant near Freeman Athletic Center. This was proposed in response to a mandate issued by President Roth to minimize the risk of losing academic calendar days in the event of a power outage, like that which occurred as a result of the unexpected winter storm of October 2011. After that event, the administration agreed through WSA negotiation to involve students in Business Continuity planning. However, no students were involved in the currently proposed plans for a new cogeneration plant. On Nov. 17, the Board of Trustees, with guidance from the Finance Committee and the President’s cabinet, quietly voted to approve funding for this new power plant.

We, concerned students, believe this power plant proposal is not good for the Wesleyan Community for a number of logistical, budgetary, and moral reasons. Here’s why:

First, it is a bad decision from a budgetary standpoint. This proposal comes at a time when analyses show the current price of natural gas to be artificially low and to inflate rapidly in the near future. A quick look at Natural Gas futures contracts shows that some estimates have the price doubling within about five years. On top of this, there are massive innovations in the clean technology industries. The clean energy economy is currently growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy and all projections show renewable energy prices continuing to fall. Wesleyan has explored some other possible options and, under their criteria, view this proposal as the “best” available today. Is it necessary that we make this $3.5 million investment now, or does it make more sense to wait a few years before exploring what more innovative emergency power solutions might look like?

Physical Plant projects that this new power plant will, through the efficiencies of cogeneration, lower our greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. The projections are mathematically accurate based off of the numbers they use, but what about the long term? In the past few years natural gas has been branded as a “bridge to the clean energy future,” because natural gas is marketed as having lower carbon emissions than coal or oil. However, natural gas infrastructure investments continue to distract our nation from making the necessary critical investments in our renewable energy infrastructure, which the impending climate crisis demands of us. We believe this new plant would have the same effect here at Wesleyan. This large capital investment disincentivizes the University from making the necessary investments to reach our stated goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

We would now like to further address the claim that natural gas has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels. While this claim is indisputable regarding direct emissions from the combustion of natural gas, it may not be so if you factor in emissions over the lifetime of these energy sources—from extraction to combustion. Over the past several years, various studies have shown that natural gas, extracted through hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” has a significantly higher greenhouse gas footprint than more conventional fossil fuel extraction. The fracking process frequently releases methane, a greenhouse gas more than 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term; there are also additional well-documented lifetime emissions due to leakages of methane from natural gas storage wells. At least one prominent study shows that all natural gas—not just that extracted through hydraulic fracturing—is far worse than coal in terms of lifetime emissions over a 20-year period. This current plan for responding to extreme weather events may in fact contribute to the very climate chaos that has inspired this reaction. To say this is backwards would be an understatement

Today about 50 percent of natural gas in the U.S. is extracted by fracking. Fracking is extremely destructive at the local-level as well, at times destroying the lives of the communities where the extraction takes place. We encourage you to look into the earthquakes, neurological diseases, and destruction of property that fracking has left in its wake. Documentaries such as “Gasland” and “Split Estate” present powerful cases against fracking.

Finally, we challenge whether this additional emergency power is so essential to our campus. As we learned last month, Wesleyan may have to close even in situations when we are with power, due to safety concerns. In a true emergency situation where there is no power to the city, business does not and should not continue as normal. The new power plant would allow us to provide full power to the campus core in the event that we lose connection to Middletown’s grid. However, in an emergency situation power should only be channeled to the necessities, as is currently the case. By shedding unnecessary energy demand in emergency scenarios, we would have enough electricity and heat to supply dorms, Usdan, Exley, Hall-Atwater, Shanklin, and parts of Freeman with our existing power plant. In these situations, even if we are able to power classrooms and have classes, faculty and staff must still come to work from homes where they have no heat or lighting, and many students living in woodframe houses would be in the same situation.

At what cost do we keep “business continuity” as our campus’ priority? At the cost of being further complicit in the degradation of frontline communities exposed to the destruction of hydraulic fracturing? At the cost of crippling our ability to become carbon neutral? At the cost of compelling faculty and staff to come to work even when they may not be able to do so safely? The world doesn’t simply keep on moving just because we will it to. As a community, we need to think about this investment in its greater context and weigh the full costs and benefits.

We call on students to hold the administration and Board of Trustees accountable, to make sure that decisions regarding campus energy production are not made in a bubble and to demand our decision-makers take a more considered approach in our emergency response and planning.

With great concern,

Marjorie Dodson ’13, Emma Pattiz ’13, Virgil Taylor ’15, Evan Weber ’13

More information on the power plant proposal appears here and here.

16 thoughts on “Fight the Power: Thoughts on Wesleyan’s Power Plant Proposal

  1. anon

    This is only an issue because everyone got really upset after the October blizzard and screamed for the administration to do something. Well, they did something – something that does fix the problem, as presented by the students (that multi-day power outages are unacceptable), and it seems in a pretty thorough, effective way. Next time, we should be careful what we wish for.

    1. Evan Weber

      Ironically, I was one of the students who organized around the administration’s response to the October blizzard and I can certainly tell you that this is not what we wished for. Our argument was not that “multi-day power outages are unacceptable” but that expecting students, faculty, and staff to continue with business as usual is unacceptable. All that this additional generation would do additionally is provide power to some academic buildings meanwhile almost anyone not living in a dorm, senior fauver, or high/low rise would be without power. This means most of the senior class, most program houses, and likely all faculty and staff. President Roth recently said in a meeting that he would not hold classes if there were another extreme weather event similar to Sandy. So why are we building this?

      1. Evan Weber

        Also, what we did “wish for” was student input into the business continuity and emergency planning processes. There wer no students involved in this decision at any level.

  2. disqus_YY8x433j7u

    Dear Marj, Emma, Virgil and Evan,

    Your letter above is a dramatic oversimplification of the argument at hand. I feel that you have selected out pieces of the science to weave a passage that is (to be honest) not entirely true to the reality. I hope to show you in what ways, but I too will have to be general in some ways. Hopefully though it will inspire you to further research your topic before making such claims.

    The science of your 3rd bullet that negates that natural gas is cleaner than fossil fuels is false. Carbon Dioxide has a vastly longer lifetime in the atmosphere than methane, so even though methane is stronger Carbon Dioxide contributes way more to the greenhouse effect.

    The initial warming period in a natural gas-dependent world is caused by the absence of harmful aerosols and sulfates (created by coal and oil) that actually have a cooling effect on the atmosphere. Though the use of natural gas does have a greenhouse effect, emissions overall are lower.

    I could list through all of your claims one by one and shed light on them, showing that this is not a black and white argument but frankly the major problem with your analysis is that you give equal weight to all factors. For example the leaking of methane is not hugely significant in this argument from an emissions stand point.

    The argument on natural gas is a complicated one and there are a lot of very recent conflicting studies from non-biased scientists. Frankly I just am appalled at the simplification of the science for the ‘shock-you’ propaganda that destroys the integrity of important arguments such as this one. It is something that as an environmental science major I have struggled with for some time. The climate change debate is rife with exaggeration on both sides which impedes a real solution.

    There are many reasons to not build this power plant your points in bullets 1 and 2 have some merit. Many problems with the natural gas industry are that of regulation, which would need to be reformed and tightened. But there are reasons also to build this power plant it does reduce emissions, and many countries that have invested heavily in natural gas also feature some of the largest renewable energy industries.

    I’m not really for either side I just want the truth to be what is informing our decisions.

    If you need information the E&ES Senior Seminar just presented on Hydro-fracking. I’m sure anyone in that class could email you a huge stack of scientific papers.

    If the grammars not all there I apologize, been pulling those all-nighters.

    1. Batte_A

      “The science of your 3rd bullet that negates that natural gas is cleaner than fossil fuels is false. Carbon Dioxide has a vastly longer lifetime in the atmosphere than methane, so even though methane is stronger Carbon Dioxide contributes way more to the greenhouse effect.”
      But doesn’t natural gas put out significant amounts of CO2 also? Am I missing something?

      “Though the use of natural gas does have a greenhouse effect, emissions overall are lower.”
      Since natural gas is being used largely to create new capacity, not simply replace existing capacity (Or am I wrong? Correct me if I am, please.), there’s no way it reduces emissions.

      “non-biased scientists” <- Who are they? Where do they live? What makes them unbiased? How can I grow up to be one?

      "But there are reasons also to build this power plant it does reduce emissions"
      Evidence?

      "and many countries that have invested heavily in natural gas also feature some of the largest renewable energy industries."
      So? How is that a reason to build this plant?

      "I'm not really for either side"
      Booo, c'mon! Are you really gonna stay "neutral" on a moving train?

      1. disqus_YY8x433j7u

        Comment 1: Natural gas is a cleaner fuel source than more traditional fossil fuels it is not the final solution, but it is significantly better than other processes. This was said to counter there argument that natural gas is dirtier than fossil fuels, which is untrue.

        Comment 2: According to studies we looked at in Senior Sem. Natural Gas is replacing the demand supplied by coal and oil, and not detracting from the renewable energy industries current. It is being used as a way to phase out coal/oil. My point is the process of natural gas consumption has lower emissions than that of coal/oil. Seeing as a significant amount of our energy comes from these sources, Wesleyan’s footprint would be reduced.

        Comment 3: Perhaps “independent scientists” would have been a better choice, meaning that they are not funded by grants or work for companies that have stake in natural gas or the advocacy against it. Nothing in this world is truly unbiased but for all intensive purpose the observed data shows the objective truth in some respects.

        Comment 4: Evidence? I’m not sure you understand the process of natural gas consumption versus other fossil fuels. If you want just a number http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_greenhouse-gas_emissions_of_energy_sources

        From your tone I don’t think your interested in reading scientific papers, but I am more than happy to supply those as well.

        Comment 5: That speaks to the argument that natural gas detracts from the renewable energy industries. A lot of countries (especially the most of carbon neutral) have developed renewable energy and natural gas in tandem. The natural gas is cleaner than coal/oil and takes on the heavy energy demand, while the renewable industries continue to be fostered until eventually they can take the load. Frankly at this moment in time the renewable energy industry cannot handle the energy demand. Hopefully some day soon it can.

        Comment 6: On not taking a side. The point of this comment was to show that it wasn’t so black and white. It is not clear what is right and what it wrong. Ideally I would love to see this money put into a geothermal plant or use of that technology. I have my own opinions on natural gas, I believe there could be a right way to do it but whether we can achieve that is another question. I merely refuse to blindly follow dogmatic opinions that ignore the situation at large.

        1. anon

          I think that the bullet point about emissions you took issue with was referring to stuff like this: http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Marcellus.html

          (I believe this is a longer version: http://thehill.com/images/stories/blogs/energy/howarth.pdf )

          Another thing: http://www.treehugger.com/fossil-fuels/natural-gas-far-less-green-than-claimed-fracking-emissions-1000s-times-higher-than-reported-epa.html

          I believe that you are simplifying certain things here. What does “cleaner” mean here? And for who? It is certainly not cleaner for the communities in PA who are getting sick from nearby fracking wells and need to have their drinking water shipped in. And the point that natural gas displaces coal/oil use–perhaps that is true when analyzing large markets for this stuff, but here we’re just talking about one power plant, in a specific context. The choice here is not about general trends, although it is happening within the context of them. And a lot of Wesleyan’s power also comes from nuclear, I think, as well as other sources, so I don’t really think it’s reasonable to just say that this would reduce emissions.

          1. disqus_YY8x433j7u

            You bring up the fair point of regulation in this industry. Hydrofracking should not occur in all places that it possibly can and the Marcellus Shale is an example of poor regulation. It is not however a typical case of the industry. I’d like to wrap up with saying I guess this is not the forum to talk about this as I can’t attach scientific papers. I’d just also like to state that I’m not arguing for the power plant, I’m just trying to express that with sensationalism and exaggeration we won’t get anywhere. Understanding the pragmatic reasons for this choice and the true impact of the technology is important.

        2. Iloverocks

          Burning CH4 is cleaner yes, in terms of sulfates and particulates. However, your point, disqus, about residence time and carbon footprints is off the mark, It’s not as if the CH4 just “settles out” of the atmosphere– it’s oxidized to CO2 and continues to be a GHG until its sucked into the various terrestrial sinks, the same as any other CO2 released by oil or coal. So yes, you get more energy per mol of CH4 burned, but that’s balanced by the fact that CH4 (before it oxidizes) is a more potent GHG than CO2 in our atmosphere (there’s less of it, so the absorption per molecule added is higher), In sum, in terms of global warming and climate change, CH4 is not a “cleaner” fuel.

          –another E&ES kid

    2. Evan Weber

      Yes, the above Wespeak is a dramatic oversimplification of the argument at hand, and much of the science behind it. That was kind of the point. What is more problematic is your insistence on speaking in absolutes after acknowledging levels of uncertainty in the science. The claims: “The science of your 3rd bullet that negates that natural gas is cleaner than fossil fuels is false” and “Though the use of natural gas does have a greenhouse effect, emissions overall are lower” seem just as, if not more, “shock-you” as anything written in the above wespeak. And if we’re throwing stones, “cleaner” is probably one of the more oversimplifying words when referring to the science behind emissions. Howarth 2011 which is still the only study to SERIOUSLY look at fugitive emissions from wells AND fracking still shows shale gas as being comparable to coal when accounting for lifetime emissions from all natural gas. I really don’t understand why you are diminishing the importance of looking at 20-year timescales. Considering that many of your esteemed “scientists” say that it’s possible we head over the climate cliff of feedback loops causing run-off emissions in that 20-year timeline, the warming impact of the radiative forcing caused by methane are all the more important.

      A way that the plant, in fact, might actually reduce emissions of the Wesleyan community is through the efficiencies of cogeneration but our wespeak isn’t trying to make bold claims to say that we know the answer to this question, unlike your response. Our point is that NONE of this has been seriously considered, and being that the plant is potentially unnecessary from an emergency planning standpoint, we need to be asking these questions. The only meetings that have been held about this have happened at the same time as when the E&ES majors have been meeting to discuss natural gas, even after I pointed that out. We need to have a serious conversation about this because it does have serious implications and your condescension don’t really help to move that forward.

  3. alum

    What is the cost of the alternative? In order to create a clean energy source that would be reliable in a storm (blizzard, hurricane, etc.) with equivalent power capacity, what would be the cost of building such a facility?

    It may be that the initial capital required to build such a clean energy source, combined with current prices (but trending downward, as noted by the Wespeak) is much higher than the lower cost of a co-gen plant combined with rising natural gas prices, no?

    For those writing the Wespeak, etc. – again, what is the cost of the alternative? If it’s more expensive to do clean energy vs. co-gen over a 15 year period, I’d rather the extra money be spent on financial aid/restoring need-blind. To me, access to Wesleyan is MUCH more important than slightly reducing our carbon footprint.

    1. Evan Weber

      The point that we tried to raise in the wespeak is that the proposed plant is probably not necessary and potentially harmful. If an alternative is “necessary,” then it might make more sense to wait for market and other conditions to favor a better option.

      1. alum

        And I think that’s the most important issue at hand – not whether it’s green enough, or even if it makes economic sense, but whether it’s even necessary (as you raised in your reply to “anon”) – I have yet to see a good reason for building it, if classes and such aren’t going to be held during a storm anyway.

  4. Matt Lichtash

    Well written article. You guys present a compelling moral argument against the construction of the new CoGen plant, one which I very much agree with. There is, however, one glaring error in your numerical case that I believe the University will point to in order to support the new construction. The data does not support your budgetary argument against this proposal: “A quick look at Natural Gas futures contracts shows that some estimates have the price doubling within about five years.” Here’s why:

    The latest comprehensive analysis (see the attached picture) of price projections by the DOE’s Energy Information Administration in June 2012 shows that under a number of projection scenarios, Natural Gas prices are not projected to double until 2030 at the earliest (the reference case doesn’t even have prices doubling by 2035!). I’m not sure what your source is, but given that Natural Gas prices are so cheap now, a doubling within 20+ years will NOT make a significant difference in an investment decision.

    Does this fact mean that I believe the new CoGen plant should be built? Absolutely not. But the University unfortunately values money over morals, as I’m sure everyone who tried to lobby for socially responsible investment is well aware of. Without a carbon price, market conditions will continue to favor Natural Gas in the near term. Given this market distortion, we must then appeal to these morals in our opposition of this new CoGen facility.

    This begs the following question. Is Wesleyan, under the guise of providing emergency power to campus, prepared to sacrifice community health and future livable conditions on this planet in order to make a profit?

    1. Ally Bernstein

      I believe that natural gas prices are going to sharply rise when they start to regulate fracking.

    2. Evan Weber

      I think we spoke about this last night, but let me reiterate in the public sphere. The reason why futures are potentially more informative to look at is because it represents what individuals looking to make a profit are thinking natural gas prices are going to do in the near future taking into account all of the exogenous variables.

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