Q: How does moving the campuses to electricity actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
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.
Q: Doesn’t electrification also come along with environmental justice concerns?
Yes it does. But this depends on what kind of electrification we’re talking about.
If we are to replace all combustion engine vehicles one-for-one with electric vehicles then we’ll rip up the planet doing it. We’ll have to do loads more mining of rare-earth-metals (often via extractive and neocolonial practices in the Global South), manufacture huge amounts of aluminum sheet and steel, and transport much of it across the ocean in emissions-spewing ships. Also, making EV batteries takes a lot of energy. So at a large scale, this won’t make emissions go down. However, there are partial solutions, for example: less reliance on one-for-one replacement of combustion engines and more investment in public transportation; the use of recycled rare earth metals, and more equitable and human-rights-respecting extraction by corporations in the Global South.
However, 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 can be other 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 … Let’s write out something sensible and show we’ve thought about the issues.
In summary, any pathway to stopping global heating must pass through electrification. But we are cognizant that the shift to electric in general, and campus-energy electrification in particular, is not without its 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.