By Drs. David Hastings and Wendell Porter
This month the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest climate report. The IPCC bluntly cautions: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”
While the report had a global focus, Florida was repeatedly used as an example where impacts of climate change are already being felt. Indeed, the Sunshine State is America’s poster child for climate damage with tidal flooding, extreme heat, stronger hurricanes, and dying coral reefs. While reducing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases is feasible, we are told that it can be very expensive.
But sometimes it’s possible to save money and do the right thing. Here in Gainesville, a beloved institution is choosing a more expensive and less climate-friendly option.
The University of Florida is proposing to build a Central Energy Plant powered by natural gas to replace aging infrastructure. The main component of natural gas, methane, traps 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
Recent studies reveal methane leakage from natural gas pipelines is far worse than we thought. There is leakage in gas fields, where fossil gas is extracted, leakage along the network of transmission pipelines, and leakage in the cities from pipelines that snake under the streets.
While the proposed facility is estimated to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to the current energy system, UF can do much better. A UF graduate, Dr. Sarah Toth, an environmental engineer who now works at RMI, just wrote a report detailing how electricity produced by the proposed gas plant could be generated by 100% clean energy at almost half the cost and with far less damaging greenhouse gas emissions.
The key finding of the RMI report is that the cost of 100% clean-energy is $120 million, much less than the $235 million projected cost of the Central Energy Plant. The report shows how a combined 105MW portfolio of energy efficiency improvements, solar, and battery storage could reliably provide the electric power needed.
How would this work? First, energy efficiency improvements are made so buildings use less energy. This was done at UF’s Reitz Union in 2014 with great success: energy consumption dropped by more than 50% after the retrofit, saving UF more than $550,000 per year. Improving building efficiency is a fundamental first step in any effort to reduce energy use.
In the RMI report, solar is the primary source of electricity; utility-scale solar photovoltaic panels with a rated capacity of 72MW would be installed. Luckily, when it’s hot in Florida and cooling is most needed, the sun is usually shining and solar panels are generating lots of electricity. The cost of solar has plummeted, decreasing by 85% in the last decade.
To complete the clean-energy portfolio, battery storage is used to provide electricity at night. Battery storage has also undergone dramatic cost decreases and technological advances. The same type of battery that powers your laptop can provide utility scale power after the sun goes down.
Critics claim that steam produced by the gas plant is critical to campus operations since steam is used to reheat chilled air for buildings. While this legacy method has been used for decades, similar institutions are moving away from this inefficient and outdated approach.
Before moving forward with a new fossil fueled power plant, UF should carefully evaluate whether a clean-energy option could provide electricity at a lower cost with far fewer health and climate impacts. The world of energy delivery has changed dramatically in the last decade. Renewable energy and battery storage are now economically viable, while the planetary risks of business as usual — burning fossil fuels — is agonizingly apparent.
The recent IPCC report shows that “people and the planet are being clobbered by climate change,” according to UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres. He calls the report “an atlas of human suffering” and has criticized the response by world leaders as “criminal abdication.”
Although we have pushed the planet to the brink, it’s not too late. Every action we take to cut carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases as soon as possible puts us on the path to reverse the course of climate change. UF has an extraordinary opportunity to save money and do the right thing for the planet.
David Hastings is a retired climate scientist and marine geochemist. Wendell Porter is a retired UF Senior Lecturer and professional engineer.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.