Brown Lays Out Plan to Achieve Net-Zero Emissions

A former gravel pit in North Kingstown could soon be Rhode Island’s highest capacity contiguous solar generation facility. It will provide enough power to offset 70 percent of Brown University’s campus electricity use. (Brown University)

A former gravel pit in North Kingstown could soon be Rhode Island’s highest capacity contiguous solar generation facility. It will provide enough power to offset 70 percent of Brown University’s campus electricity use. (Brown University)

By ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — To create a more sustainable campus and confront what scientists have declared an increasingly dire threat posed by global climate change, Brown University has set an aggressive goal to cut its campus greenhouse-gas emissions by 75 percent by 2025, and to achieve net-zero no later than 2040.

On Feb. 9, the Corporation of Brown University approved the goals, based on the strength of a phased plan that reflects the technical and financial realities of global energy markets, while also ensuring the flexibility demanded to respond to changes in technology and energy prices over the next two decades.

The university has established four phases of achievable actions that include a series of immediate steps that will enable the most of the greenhouse-gas reductions — 75 percent below 2017-18 levels — to be realized by 2025. A central aspect of the efforts will be to embed the work into Brown’s teaching and research to engage students in the intergenerational work of finding solutions.

“The best available science tells us that the world needs to cut its emissions dramatically by mid-century or sooner to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” Brown University president Christina Paxson said. “With our pledge to reach net-zero, and with a plan that is ambitious, yet technically and financially feasible, Brown will be a leader in addressing a defining challenge of the 21st century.”

The Corporation of Brown University, however, has no plans to divest from fossil fuels. “Nope. Nope. We rejected that,” Paxson told ecoRI News earlier this month.

In 2013, the university rejected a proposal to divest from the 15 largest coal companies in the United States. Paxson said at the time that the investments were too small to have an economic impact on the industry.

The net-zero goal builds on efforts that began more than a decade ago to reduce Brown’s greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2008, the university committed to cut emissions nearly in half from 2007 levels by 2020. Based on a conversion of Brown’s central heating plant from oil to natural gas, a thermal efficiency upgrade that enables the plant to circulate hot water instead of steam, and a variety of campus energy-efficiency projects, Brown is approaching that goal and working to move beyond it, according to university officials.

Last year Brown began exploring a new set of more ambitious greenhouse goals. That undertaking — led by a committee chaired by Stephen Porder, assistant provost for sustainability and an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Leah VanWey, associate provost for academic space and a professor of sociology and environment and society — included engaging the campus community in devising action steps to reach net-zero.

“From the start, we agreed that it was essential to create a path to net-zero with meaningful changes to our infrastructure, rather than relying too heavily on buying carbon offsets and other indirect measures,” Porder said. “We’ve carefully studied our buildings, our heating infrastructure and our budget. We’ve looked at logistics on how best to maintain campus operations while infrastructure improvements are being made. And we emerged with an ambitious, tractable plan for reaching the goal of net-zero emissions.”

VanWey said the plan reflects Brown’s commitment to integrating research, education, and practice to address complex challenges.

“We know that climate change is one of the primary challenges humanity faces, so it’s critical for us to lead by example in taking truly substantive action to cut our emissions to zero,” VanWey said. “This is a plan that is financially responsible, integrates with ongoing campus facilities projects, and provides the flexibility needed to take advantage of future improvements in technology.”

A critical component of the university’s plan is that it will continuously be reassessed to ensure that Brown is making use of the best available technologies.

The net-zero plan’s first phase — two renewable-energy agreements with providers of solar and wind power to offset 100 percent of Brown’s on-campus electricity use — is already in motion. Last month, Brown finalized a partnership to create a 50-megawatt solar facility in a former gravel pit in North Kingstown, which is expected to offset 70 percent of campus electricity use. The remaining 30 percent will be offset by an agreement with a Texas-based wind facility.

Those projects, along with a thermal efficiency project already underway, will cut campus greenhouse-gas emissions by some 27,000 metric tons annually by the early 2020s, according to university officials. That reduction is the equivalent of taking 5,800 cars off the road and is expected to result in total emissions cuts of 67 percent relative to 2007, when Brown’s original greenhouse-gas reduction goals were developed, Porder said.

The second phase, scheduled for 2022, will convert the central heating plant to post-consumer bio-oil as a primary fuel, with natural gas remaining as a backup. While not a permanent solution, recycled bio-oil, which is derived from waste cooking oil discarded after food preparation, enables a large decrease in emissions in the near term, as steps are taken to prepare for a more permanent fuel solution that relies on renewable electricity. The bio-oil conversion is expected to eliminate an additional 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse emissions annually, according to university officials.

The project’s third phase involves further upgrades to the university’s central heating loop and buildings connected to it, enabling lower-temperature water to meet the heating needs of the campus. That work is projected to take place between 2021 and 2038.

“This will be the most time-intensive phase of the project,” VanWey said. “We want to do this with minimal disruption to our academic operations, which requires us to do most of the work in summers when heating isn’t needed. Extending it over time also will allow us to strategically schedule these upgrades when renovation or renewal work would have happened anyway.”

The final phase, scheduled for 2038, calls for the conversion of Brown’s heating plant to renewable electricity, with bio-oil as a secondary fuel. Currently, the plan envisions air-source heat pumps as the heat-generation technology. But it’s possible, VanWey and Porder said, that better technology may emerge in the intervening years. This is part of the university’s planned continual assessment of the most effective and efficient approaches to reach the net-zero goal.

Taking into account money saved through the purchase of lower-cost electricity and efficiency improvements in the central heating plant, the net-zero plan is expected to cost less than $1.43 million annually in additional expenditures from 2020 to 2038. Those expenditures can be embedded into the university’s operating budget without redirecting money from academic priorities.

The costs of the final stage of actions to be taken between 2038 to 2040 are less certain at this point, given the difficulty in predicting what technologies might be available to aid in the final electricity conversion of the central heating plant, VanWey said. But even with current technologies, she expects final electricity conversion to be economically feasible and an important investment.