by Mary-Claire Erskine, + an interview with Rob Lamppa
In 2006 Oberlin College was one of the first schools to sign onto the Presidents Climate Committment, requiring us to set a target date for carbon neutrality. That means we’ve been pledged to a goal of carbon neutrality for 5 years now. Then again in 2009 we signed onto Clinton Climate Initiative, which is a really prestigeous public promise to make the entire city of Oberlin climate positive- that’s the Oberlin Project.
So with all these promises, what’s the deal? Why does that ugly building behind Mudd still secretly spew the carbon from 2-3 (5-6?) tons of coal every day in the winter as it heats our campus. Why don’t we have any concrete plan to move away?
Well some of the inertia is the inherent conservative nature of an institution that makes it very cautious and slow to change, but a large reason why we have not gotten off of coal yet is a genuine desire to switch to the best possible heat source.
Right now the best possible source of heat from the college is from a nearby landfill. Landfills produce methane gas, a gas twenty times more potent than CO2. So they are required by the EPA to collect it and flare it off, turning it into CO2. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to install technology to use this flaring to generate heat and electricity for buildings, and the heat and electricity is carbon-free because it is being created with a process that would release carbon anyways. Unfortunately the landfill that is close enough to Oberlin to provide us heat is owned by an Australian company that is proving difficult to negotiate with.
Environmental faculty and administrators are hesitant to advise another alternative because landfill gas is so superior to all other options.
Geothermal ground source heat pumps: although also clean, are extremely expensive. Ground source heat pumps work to lessen the amount that the water used to heat the campus needs to be heated, but cannot be a stand-alone solution. Also, GSHP need electricity to pump the water through the ground, so they take a refined energy source (electricity) and use it for heating.
Bio-mass incineration: burning wood or other plants like switchgrass as fuel is pretty iffy in terms of sustainability. First of all the fuel would only be carbon neutral if it was grown and harvested sustainably, which is pretty difficulty to measure. Then there’s the issue of transportation. The energy content of biomass is much lower than fossil fuels and would require something around 15 tons a day to heat our campus. That would mean we’d be trucking all that plant matter from wherever it was grown every single day with diesel trucks that were emitting carbon. Finally burning plants have a pretty high particulate pollution, so even if we managed to get it technically “carbon-free” we’d still be polluting our air.
Natural Gas: Bad Bad! Natural Gas is a fossil fuel, not a renewable energy source. It is often seen as a bridge fuel off of coal because conventionally drilled natural gas has a much lower carbon footprint than coal. However, new studies have been released proving that natural gas obtained by fracking has just as large a carbon footprint as coal. Fracking is happening in Ohio and all over the country, it poisons aquifers (drinking water) and is extremely dangerous. It’s a huge environmental justice issue. So if Oberlin switched to natural gas, even if it only bought conventionally drilled natural gas, it would be contributing to an overall demand for natural gas, that would encourage fracking and it would send the a very wrong message to other institutions that look to us as sustainability leaders.
Interview w/ Rob Lamppa:
How many tons of coal does Oberlin College use onsite every day? Oberlin College does not use coal on a year-round
basis. Coal is primarily used from November through Mid-March. Heating
prior to, and after this time is provided by the College's natural gas
fired boiler. In Fiscal Year 2010, the College burned just under 6000
tons of coal.