‘How much are you willing to spend to save the planet?’ University works toward 2050 carbon neutrality goal

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Notre Dame recently announced a goal to become carbon neutral by 2050, but achieving net zero emissions in less than 30 years will take more than just a lofty vision for the future.

Through a combination of investments in solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and new technologies that may arise in the future, Notre Dame plans to transition away from fossil fuel reliance in a similar manner to the way the University ended coal usage in 2019, gradually yet efficiently and realistically.

Paul Kempf, assistant vice president for utilities and maintenance, is an important leader in helping the University to transition to more sustainable energy sources.

Kempf said many universities and organizations have been committing to carbon neutrality in recent years, and while some may not meet their ambitious goals, he believes Notre Dame will.

Since reducing carbon became a priority of the administration in 2010, the University has become more willing to invest money solely to reduce carbon emissions, Kempf said.

Peter Burns, director of the University’s Center for Sustainable Energy, agreed.

“It’s no longer, ‘Will we save money?’ as the single consideration,” Burns said. “I don’t think we’re willing to spend outrageous amounts of money reducing carbon, but now, reducing carbon has value that offsets financial costs.”

As Burns explained, carbon neutrality is achieved through the process of lessening carbon emissions while investing in offsets elsewhere in the world that counteract the limited carbon emissions Notre Dame releases.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine by 2050 that we could consume zero fossil fuels, so that’s where neutrality comes in,” Burns said. “We’ve made great progress. We’re going to meet these goals. It’s not just a smoke and mirrors routine.”

Some claim carbon offsets simply augment energy and climate inequity by allowing wealthy organizations to simply pay their way out of a larger emissions problem, but Burns said he would prefer to see Notre Dame spend money on offsets that contribute to the greater good, possibly in low income nations.

More like a climate credit, Notre Dame currently claims a 40% emissions reduction from their partial ownership of a solar farm about seven miles from campus in St. Joseph County. Energy from the solar farm powers many places connected to the Indiana power grid, but Notre Dame receives about 10% of its power from the solar farm, according to Kempf and Burns.

While solar power is an important part of Notre Dame’s energy portfolio, it has its limitations, Burns said — namely in space and consistency. Solar cells require a lot of space to produce a relatively small amount of energy, which is why simply placing solar cells on top of campus buildings or a similar strategy would not scratch the surface of Notre Dame’s energy needs, Kempf and Burns said. Additionally, solar cells aren’t always optimally effective, especially in northern Indiana during colder and cloudier months.

“Here in northern Indiana, you cannot run the University of Notre Dame on solar. It’s impossible. There’s no math that will ever get you there,” Burns said.

Adding to Notre Dame’s renewable energy menu, one hydroelectric facility — currently under construction near a preexisting dam in the St. Joseph River — will make up another 7% of the University’s energy needs, Kempf and Burns noted.

With the project expected to be completed by the summer of 2022, Burns and Kempf said adding hydroelectric is not a financially motivated move, but it will help diversify the University’s sources of power without emitting carbon dioxide.

Another system that reduces carbon hides a few hundred feet below students’ feet: geothermal installations on East Quad and an even larger system under the Notre Dame Stadium parking lots. These systems boost energy efficiency for the process of heating and cooling campus buildings.

Geothermal systems use water-filled pipes to bring heat up from the warm ground during colder months and channel excess surface heat into the cooler ground during warmer months. These installations reduce the energy needed to adjust indoor temperatures.

The University will continue to optimize energy usage in other ways, according to Kempf and Burns. Another ongoing measure includes installing energy-efficient lighting in buildings that still rely on incandescents as opposed to LEDs.

The later stages of the carbon neutrality plan may involve new technologies to help close the energy gap, Kempf said.

“Part of our strategy is to make improvements and let technology advance,” he said.

Up-and-coming technologies, like biofuels or carbon sequestration, could become feasible solutions in the future, he explained.

Kempf and Burns said they are both excited about the possibility of a small-scale modular nuclear power plant on Notre Dame’s campus. While this is not a possibility in the present moment, they noted, nuclear power offers an enticing future solution.

“There’s a real possibility that a campus like Notre Dame could have a small reactor that powered the entire campus fossil free,” Burns said. “But we have to be careful in our planning that we don’t put too much emphasis on something that’s not available.”

Burns said nuclear energy is fossil free, compact and more consistent than other non-carbon energy sources, making it one of the only current solutions that could meet energy needs.

Some voice safety concerns over nuclear energy, but Burns emphasized that coal and fossil fuel industries contribute far more deaths per unit of energy than nuclear.

Despite fears of a nuclear waste catastrophe, Burns said disposing of nuclear waste is a known and reliable process. In fact, he noted that many United States submarines and aircraft carriers already capitalize on the power of nuclear energy to maintain naval supremacy.

In addition, much of the energy that Notre Dame purchases from Indiana Michigan Power comes from nuclear sources.

“Nuclear is pretty much the safest way to produce energy,” he said.

Nuclear is still more expensive than fossil fuels, which leads Burns to the question defining Notre Dame’s power and energy efforts around the globe.

“How much are you willing to spend to save the planet?” Burns asked.


Originally published by Maggie Eastland at green.nd.edu on September 27, 2021.