Campus climate

Students and faculty say CU’s plan to curb emissions is too slow

CU Boulder's West District Energy Plant. Courtesy CU Boulder

“As a young person, climate change is one of my most pressing worries about the future,” says Sara Fleming, a graduate student at CU Boulder.  

More than two-thirds of adults experience anxiety or worry about climate change like Fleming, according to the American Psychological Association

To avoid the worst impacts, institutions and governments around the world are charting courses to reduce carbon emissions. After a month of public comment, CU Boulder will publish a new Climate Action Plan (CAP) in April that outlines its own commitments. 

The drafted document, first released in February, is a conceptual plan that includes more than 200 pages of dizzying greenhouse gas forecasts, targets and strategies to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It’s guided by two key goals: Cut emissions in half by 2030 and bring them to zero by 2050 without buying renewable energy credits. 

While the plan draws on science-based targets, Fleming is part of a group of more than 300 students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members who signed a letter urging the university to take up faster, more aggressive objectives.

“As a leading research university, CU Boulder should be a lot more ambitious, a lot more serious about their climate action plan,” she says. “Because it’s an opportunity to not only affect the campus’s own climate emissions, but to sort of set an example to bring students, faculty and staff together and to give us hope, honestly.”

Chuck Kutscher, who signed the letter, resigned from the plan’s steering committee because he says it isn’t urgent enough and doesn’t keep pace with other universities in the state and around the country. He says climate change is “far more serious than most people realize.” 

“We need to treat it like a crisis and take very, very serious action,” he says. “We’re doing a lot of the right things. We’re just not doing them fast enough.”

Climate commitments are falling off track around the world as the United Nations continues to call for immediate emission cuts. CU missed its 2020 targets, even with pandemic-related shutdowns lowering campus emissions.  

Members of the plan’s steering committee say it is ambitious, but rapid implementation faces significant hurdles — like an estimated $1.5 billion price tag. 

At the same time, some think the university is going backwards as it spends millions to upgrade fossil fuel infrastructure at its West District Energy Plant to stay in compliance with state air permit requirements. Plus, two dorms scheduled to be built in the next several years will be heated using natural gas. 

Incorporating public feedback is the school’s last step before publishing the plan. Fleming hopes the university walks the walk. 

“We have a lot of institutional power. We have a lot of resources. We have a lot of expertise that we can draw on,” she says. “If we can’t figure out how to do effective climate action planning, what does that say to our students? If we miss our target again, what does that tell them about their hopes for the future?”

A roadmap to save the world?

University climate action plans are focused on energy systems, but also consider things like equity, transportation and waste. At CU Boulder, most campus emissions come from burning natural gas to heat buildings. 

The CAP splits emissions into three categories: Scope 1 represents fuel combustion on campus. Scope 2 is purchased energy, mostly from Xcel Energy. Scope 3 are sources out of direct university control, like purchasing goods. Courtesy CU Boulder

Upgrading that system is the most expensive, time consuming and contentious strategy in the Climate Action Plan. 

The university is planning to transition to a low-temperature hot water system that uses heat pumps powered by electricity. As cheap renewables generate higher proportions of energy on the grid, this electricity will continue to get greener.   

Systems that burn natural gas release methane and carbon dioxide and are prone to leaks. Heat pumps are more efficient, don’t produce emissions and have lower life-cycle costs. 

An ongoing study is evaluating how to replace the current heating systems at CU and how much it would cost, but it isn’t done yet. The university also submitted two grant applications to explore geothermal on campus in January. Heating system upgrades are currently estimated to cost between $600 million and $1.2 billion.

A growing number of colleges and universities are combining geothermal systems with heat pumps to power buildings without burning fossil fuels, including at Colorado State University, Colorado Mesa University and Colorado College

But more than 85% of estimated carbon savings from heating upgrades at CU are planned after 2031, according to the CAP. Kutscher’s critique is simple: Why wait? 

“If eventually you’re going to do it anyway, why not do it now and avoid all those equipment upgrades that they have to make,” he says. “Because to me, you’re essentially throwing good money after bad when you continue to try to upgrade the gas system.” 

Before it transitions to clean thermal energy, the university said on its website it first needs to convert 180 campus buildings (many of which are over 50 years old) and complete other projects. Meanwhile, some upgrades to existing equipment are necessary to provide reliable heating and power. 

“Do we want to accelerate that if we can find a way? Absolutely,” says Chris Ewing, vice chancellor for infrastructure and sustainability. “That’s my personal goal is how do we come in ahead of 2050.”

Courtesy CU Boulder

University officials say upgrades to the current steam system, such as those at the West District Energy Plant, don’t lengthen the transition timeline to a cleaner energy system but instead help meet immediate needs and provide reserves in the future.

Kent Marsh, director of facilities at Colorado Mesa University, says it’s difficult for universities to quickly switch their energy infrastructure, especially after making investments in current systems.

“I’ve sunk in all this money into what many would consider to be a very old, archaic technology,” he says. “And because we’ve done that, we gotta keep that thing operating to try to make some of the money back that we spent on putting that system in place.”

New buildings at CU, like the incoming dorms, will be constructed with the ability to go electric, but natural gas will heat most of them until the new system comes online. Ewing says that’s because it’s more efficient to connect buildings to existing infrastructure that can share heat between buildings versus electrifying them independently. 

“We could put on all this infrastructure cost, which would not be inexpensive,” he says. “And then be coming through in a number of years and basically abandoning that equipment.”

The heat transition is the most challenging part of the CAP, Chief Sustainability Officer Heidi VanGenderen says.

“We are building the most resilient and least carbon-intensive system that we can,” she says.

The university is still figuring out how it would pay for the costly new system. Ewing says they are actively looking for funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, Colorado Energy Office and different fundraising opportunities. 

Even if they had all the money already in the bag, Ewing says the transition wouldn’t be immediate because only so many buildings can be upgraded at one time without disrupting campus activities.  

But Kutscher says institutions like CU have a greater responsibility to the wellbeing of its students that constitutes more urgency.  

The implementation timeline and carbon savings by strategy in Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Courtesy CU Boulder

“It’s a challenge for a university that’s been heating its campus a certain way for decades. They’re experienced in doing that; they’re comfortable doing that,” he says. “It’s going to take commitment and money to move forward into the 21st century. I understand why there’s resistance to do that. I’m not trivializing it. I’m just saying I think CU has a responsibility to its students to do the right thing.” 

The house is on fire                 

There isn’t a universal standard between universities on how to use climate goals to lower emissions. 

Many universities have baseline goals that are similar to CU: carbon neutrality by 2050. 

But some institutions — such as Princeton, California State Northridge, Ball State and the University of Michigan — aim for similar objectives but earlier. Others, like Colorado Mesa, are lowering emissions without a formal goal.

Colorado State University is aiming for a 2030 goal similar to CU Boulder’s, but plans to reach carbon neutral by 2040. 

When asked how they can make the transition so quickly, Carol Dollard, who designs renewable energy systems at CSU, says it’s not a technical problem.

“This is a problem of financing, wills and priorities,” she says. “Frankly, we know what we need to do technically. I should not be quite so cocky about that, but the reality is we’ve known for a long time what we need to do. We just need to say yes, it is worth our time and effort to take this.”

Dollard says CSU also benefits from being a customer of Fort Collins Utilities, a community-owned company that purchases power from the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), compared to CU’s Xcel Energy, which serves eight states. PRPA is aiming to provide carbon-neutral electricity by 2030, two decades before Xcel

CSU also has half the square footage on their energy system compared to CU, according to a Climate Action Plan forum. 

Originally, CSU’s goal was carbon neutrality by 2050. It was changed to 2040 a few years ago because of the rising consequences of climate change. 

“We see the writing on the wall,” Dollard says. “2050 ain’t good enough.” 

The next big project on Dollard’s horizon is upgrading the natural gas powered system to heat buildings using electricity. She estimates the 60-year life-cycle cost of that transition is $150 million less than continuing with the existing system. A similar cost analysis hasn’t been completed for CU. 

CSU’s project is planned out, but the university doesn’t have a way to pay for the roughly $200 million it will cost out of the gate. “Nobody has that kind of money up front,” she says.  

Dollard is no stranger to drawn-out timelines and limited funding. She says there’s a lot of different priorities competing for limited dollars at large public universities.

“I’d love to have people react, you know, as if the house was on fire, because I sort of feel like it is,” she says. “Patience is a virtue here, and it ain’t my best virtue. But that is how you get stuff done.”

‘Make that learning do something’

Ambitious or not, climate goals are inconsequential without follow through. 

“Higher ed institutions, or anybody for that matter, will continue to perpetuate the problem if they don’t make a hard decision to say, you know, we’ve got to figure something else out,” Colorado Mesa’s Marsh says. 

CU Boulder already has some projects underway that align with the CAP, like renovating 18 buildings to increase energy efficiency, electrifying its transportation fleet and finalizing two solar projects.

The Executive Council on Sustainability, which was created in December last year, and the Sustainability Council will monitor the university’s progress. Kutscher says it comes down to leadership at the top — he sees the school’s search for a new chancellor as an opportunity. 

“I would like to see a new chancellor that understands the importance of decarbonizing the CU campus,” he says. That will help initiate the rapid transition Kutscher says needs to happen now.

“It’s critically important for a university to do this, because, look, you’re the one that’s going to see the worst impacts of climate change, not me,” he says. “Young people, students today, in their lives are going to see an enormous impact of climate change.”

At CSU, Dollard says students have “incredible amounts of power” to influence climate commitments, especially their integral role establishing the university’s 2030 goals after bringing 4,000 signatures to the president’s desk. 

Fleming says the Climate Action Plan’s targets meet “the minimum requirement.” Without faster action, she says CU is sending a message that “there’s nothing we can do, that it’s too late, that we just cannot make these changes to decarbonize our economy in an equitable way.” 

“We speak of campus like it’s a living, learning laboratory, right? Where students learn how to do sustainability by being involved. We should actually make that learning do something for the campus.”