- By ‘electrification’ we are referring to early-retirement of the methane-burning infrastructure on the UC campuses. Instead, the campuses would run on electric power, provided by a mix of onsite solar and electricity from the California grid, a majority of which will be supplied by non fossil fuel energy by 2030 [and even now, community choice aggregation allows more of it to be provided by non fossil fuel means].
- A model for campus electrification is the SESI system of Stanford: something that cost about $430 million, to be paid over 30 years.
- Before the UC’s actually make this shift, they need to make detailed plans. The making of those plans could take several years.
- Electrification is not a magic bullet in stopping the climate and ecological crisis; but it is a necessary step. Electrification entails environmental justice challenges that we must also consider.
SESI represents a transformation of Stanford’s energy supply from 100% fossil-fuel-based combined heat and power plant to grid-sourced electricity and a more efficient electric heat recovery system. In 2011, Stanford’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked at 230,000 metric tons. This new system, along with Stanford’s solar procurement, reduces campus emissions approximately 68% below peak levels (perhaps 80% by end of 2021), and saves 18% of campus potable water.
The system was expensive, paid off over 30 years. Such electrification raises difficult issues of resiliency, for example when extreme weather drives stronger wildfire seasons that require pauses in grid electric power. All the more reason for plans to be made in the UC now.
Frequently asked questions about Electrification
Q: How does moving the campuses to electricity actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Yes. Right now the campuses are burning fracked methane in co-generation plants, emitting over 1 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide. If plans are made to replace this infrastructure, and the change is actually implemented this decade, then we will run the campuses mostly on electricity from the California grid (like Stanford University is currently doing). Under state law, by 2030 over 60% of the electricity in California will be generated from utility level solar and wind; if one adds large scale hydropower a much greater proportion too. The deployment of utility scale wind and solar could also go quicker still. So while it’s true that some proportion of the electricity mix in California will still be generated by fracked methane in 2030, it will be less and less over time*. But we can’t take advantage of that at the UC if we are burning so much fracked methane ourselves. Any pathway to stopping global heating must pass through electrification. Fossil fuel infrastructure must be retired now. Let’s do it already. [* As it stands the UC Office of the President claims to buy “100% clean electricity” for the campuses, for the component of campus energy that is supplied by electricity rather than burning methane onsite. It’s doubtful that the 100% claim is strictly correct, as can be viewed here, because there is a large reliance on hydropower and 13.5% of unknown RECS, but it’s surely a preponderance of renewable energy, and paying for campus electricity in this way supports more renewable development in the state].
Q: ‘What about Lithium?’ – aka – Doesn’t electrification also come along with environmental justice concerns?
Yes it does. Some people frame their concern as “What about lithium?”. By this they refer to the process of Extractivism, whereby the corporations of rich countries continue to exploit the resources and labor of those in the Global South, to extract rare earth metals and other minerals; often with scant regard for Human Rights. However, the answer is not to foreswear mineral extraction, but to do it under a framework of international law, labor standards, and respect for human rights. Further, as spelled out by the IPCC 2018 report, we need to make the shift to electrification in the context of overall Demand Reduction. We will need to simultaneously invest more in public transportation. We can also do much better recycling of existing metal and rare earth stocks: a new plant is being built in the state of Georgia that would recycle 30,000 tons of Lithium per year.
In any case, on this website, and for this campaign, we’re not talking about replacing combustion engines with EVs, but doing electrification of the UC campuses by replacing fossil fuel infrastructure and running our campuses on utility-scale solar and wind. While it is possible that some of the campuses will need lithium ion batteries to help with resiliency to power outages, for example brought on by more fires, we don’t see that as a large component (there are solutions to resiliency that don’t rely on large scale use of lithium batteries). There is also the question of what kinds of extractive processes, and energy inputs are involved in utility scale wind and solar, and how much the siting of them in California encroaches on agricultural and indigenous lands. We have to recognize that trade-offs will be needed. We need to recognize that the status quo incurs enormous, and much bigger, damages: fossil fuel extraction is poisoning people all over the world, killing millions per year through air pollution and destroying our biosphere. Meanwhile, SB100, state law in California, mandates that we have 60% electricity from wind and solar by 2030, and it could go faster still. The 2021 Clean Futures Act, currently mooted in Congress, proposes 80% of national electricity is from renewables by 2030, and 100% by 2035.
In summary, any pathway to stopping global heating must pass through electrification, even if that has challenges. The shift to electrification must happen in the context of a bigger vision for social justice, public investment, and social ecology. This is all the more reason for the UC to start discussing this and making plans now.