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UC San Diego

  • UCSD burns about $10 million per year worth of fracked methane in its co-generation plant.
  • The emissions from methane-burning make up a large part of 300,000 tonnes of C02 per year from the campus
  • 2016 planning included an electrification option, but that was not pursued – the campus plans to keep burning fracked methane through 2032, if not much longer.
  • On March 11th 2021 , the UCSD Chancellor affirmed that $250,000 had been allocated to explore the electrification option.
9 minute video of presentation to UCSD Chancellor Khosla on March 11th 2021

UCSD generates about 85% of its own energy with a cogeneration plant – the “Central Utilities Plant” – featuring two 13 MW turbines, powered by fracked methane. Because of this preponderance of fossil-fuel power, UCSD is one of the most polluting campuses in the UC system, all told emitting ~ 300K tons of CO2e every year. The campus took on a large debt load to build the plant, which will not be paid off until 2032. As the climate crisis worsens, the challenge is clear: we have to retire our fossil gas infrastructure ahead of this date.

We do not underestimate the scope of this task. UCSD comprises a 1,200- acre campus with more than 700 buildings. Before the pandemic, forty-five thousand students, faculty, staff, and visitors churned through the campus daily. As a research and medical institution, it consumes more than 250,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of energy annually, a huge demand, because of its supercomputing center, research laboratories and hospital. 

In 2016, Burrohapold Engineering did a study of how to achieve carbon neutrality at UCSD. They laid out five possible paths. Scenario four was electrification. This path would involve the removal of the methane-powered cogen engines, conversion to a low-temperature campus hot-water loop, and installation of a heat recovery chiller plant. 

Unfortunately, electrification was not seriously considered at that time, on the grounds of upfront capital costs and reductions in energy resilience. Instead, the university opted for scenario five. This was presented as a diversification strategy — energy efficiency, biogas, some onsite PV and carbon offsets — but it basically amounts to keeping the gas-fired cogeneration plant indefinitely and using offsets to reach the university’s carbon neutrality goals. At the time that this decision was made, replacing fracked methane with biomethane from landfills, agriculture, and sewage plants seemed like it might be a viable path to greater decarbonization. The biogas option has since foundered on insoluble problems with cost, supply, and methane leakage. Given the demonstrable unworkability of the biomethane solution, the worsening climate crisis, and the absolute bankruptcy of offsets [see the page on carbon neutrality on this website], UCSD now needs to revisit the electrification scenario laid out in 2016, and make shovel-ready plans to get off the gas. The March 11th 2021 news that $250,000 has been allocated is a step on the right direction.

Schematic of electrification, according to the 2016 Burrohapold Engineering Report, with some pictures of the Stanford system on the left. We obviously need much more detailed electrification plans!

Endorsements

“Within 10 years, planetary warming will cross 1.5 Celsius, which is 50% more than what the planet had experienced as of 2015. California has become a poster child for climate disruption. Our rainy season has shrunk by 27 days, summer warming is breaking all records, and, just in the last 10 years, about 1/3 of our forests were subject to fires. When warming exceeds 1.5 Celsius 10 years from now, climate change will move into all of our living rooms, like COVID. Academic institutions have to step up and become part of the solution. There is an overwhelming consensus that we must acquire 100% of our electricity from renewable sources within 15 years. UCSD, which is a pioneering institution in climate science, should now become a living laboratory for the state, the nation and the world, for ZERO emissions of carbon and also for maximum reductions in super pollutants (e.g. by reducing methane release from decomposing campus food waste). All the researchers and faculty and students in campus should contribute to this goal. The micro-grid at UCSD is an amazing creation, now let us make it fossil free. Yes, we can UCSD!”

RAM RAMANATHAN – Edward A. Frieman Endowed Presidential Chair in Climate Sustainability – University of California at San Diego

“Because 30 years of international climate talks have not yielded anything binding, and because national climate policy by most governments is woeful, we must resort to local climate action. As members of the UC, we have the power to push one of the largest institutions in the world to do genuine emissions reductions. Our collective action on this will make us hopeful. And this local action will help usher in the behavioral and cultural change that creates the national political shift, and later, the global shift.”

ADAM ARON, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Faculty Member UCSD Green New Deal Climate Justice Movement, UC San Diego