California Advanced Solar Technologies Institute, UC Merced

Deep Energy Efficiency helps power Carbon Neutrality Initiative

By Nate Seltenrich

Decades in the making, a carbon-free future for the University of California is finally in sight. The goal first gained support from a 2004 initiative to improve energy efficiency and implement renewable energy across the system, and was affirmed through a 2013 plan to achieve carbon neutrality systemwide by 2025. And in recent weeks the effort’s final stages have been suggested by a pair of reports outlining how a blend of increased efficiency, biogas energy, and electrification can help the university achieve its goal in the next seven years.

The first, and more detailed of the new publications is a 100-page report produced by a working group of 27 experts from across the UC system, including lead author Alan Meier (Ph.D.’82 E&R), CITRIS and the Banatao Institute researcher at UC Davis, and CITRIS researcher Karl Brown (M.S.’82 ME). The second is a condensed version of the report published as a commentary in the March issue of the journal Nature Climate Change.

Karl Brown

Karl Brown, CITRIS Researcher and Deputy Director of the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE), @1KarlBrown 

“UC has always been progressive about energy management, and ramped up efforts in 2004 with initiation of the Sustainable Practices Policy,” says Brown, deputy director of the UC Berkeley-based California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE), where he’s been on staff since 1991. “We had significant momentum established when the 2025 carbon neutrality goal was set. It was not a standing start in 2013, but rather an acceleration of change commensurate with the urgency of the threat to our civilization.”

The new reports, themselves the result of a multi-year, interdisciplinary process sponsored by the TomKat Charitable Trust (and supported by the University of California Office of the President and by CITRIS and the Banatao Institute), identify a three-pronged approach for weaning the university off carbon: 1) aggressively increasing energy efficiency across all ten campuses and five medical centers; 2) in the short term, using biogas in place of natural gas, upon which the system and the entire state of California rely heavily; and 3) in the long term, electrifying all end uses of energy and switching to only renewable sources.

In terms of efficiency, the university has already made considerable strides, Brown said. Since 2004, retrofit projects have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to 13 percent of 2015 emissions, netting the university $24 million a year. By 2025, further efficiency measures could save another $19 million per year.

While achievements in efficiency must be enduring, the report frames biogas as a stepping stone to carbon neutrality. Biogas is produced through the controlled decomposition of organic materials such as food and agricultural waste, certain crops, and biosolids from wastewater treatment plants. While chemically identical to its fossilized counterpart, biogas is considered climate-friendlier because the methane generated from open-air decomposition would be directly released into the atmosphere or otherwise wasted. Yet it poses considerable challenges around scalability.

Finally, electrification refers to the gradual process of bypassing gas altogether and replacing it with solar, wind, and other sources of zero-emission electricity. This is relatively straightforward for new buildings and domestic water heating, but more difficult when it comes to existing buildings or high-temperature end uses such as sterilization.

“Energy efficiency is synergistic with electrification,” Brown says. “Efficiency manages the cost of electrification, while electrification expands the options for efficiency.” Efficiency also promises to capture significant savings — funds that, put toward other de-carbonization measures, could help the university lead the state of California toward its own carbon-neutrality target of 2045.

CITRIS and the Banatao Institute contributed to the University of California Carbon Neutrality Initiative through the CITRIS Sustainable Infrastructures Initiative’s Deep Energy Efficiency Project.

Photo: ©2015 University of California

Learn more

Full report:
University of California Strategies for Decarbonization: Replacing Natural Gas

Nature Climate Change article:
Turning Paris into reality at the University of California

University of California Office of the President (UCOP) news:
How the Paris Climate Accord is becoming reality at UC