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Why “Drill, baby, drill” is in Brandeis’ Future

Published: December 6, 2013
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

The lead article in The New York Times this past week carries hopeful news for anyone not in deep denial about climate change. An analysis of corporate long-range financial plans has revealed that some of the world’s largest companies are preparing to pay up to $60 per ton for carbon pollution. “It’s climate change as line item,” as one analyst observed.

Exxon-Mobil, Shell and Microsoft are among the companies incorporating a price on carbon into their long-range planning. Given the policy direction in Washington and the deepening acceptance that the world cannot keep dumping carbon dioxide indefinitely, some kind of penalty for pollution looks inevitable to these captains of industry.

What would a tax of $60 a ton mean for Brandeis? Here I consider just our direct use of natural gas. Based on our campus-wide average consumption during 2010-2012, we burn an average of 2,400,000 therms of natural gas per year. We use this fuel mainly to heat our many buildings and make hot water for sinks and showers, and for a few buildings it is the energy source (via evaporation of water) for summertime cooling. Smaller but also important uses include keeping the swimming pool comfortable and running the sterilizing equipment in the science labs. In New England’s climate, all you need to know is the first use mentioned: space heating. We have to keep the dorms, classrooms and other spaces warm all winter, or we simply could not function.

Each therm of natural gas burned releases about 1.6 kg of carbon, so our direct consumption of natural gas is responsible for about 4,061 metric tons of carbon, which then creates 14,000 tons of carbon dioxide. If the U.S. starts imposing a tax on the sellers of natural gas, passed onto consumers, we will be paying an extra $243,000 a year just to keep warm. This is an increase of about 11 percent on our natural gas bill.

Over the long haul though, natural gas prices are sure to rise, just as with any non-renewable resource. And to really incentivize a movement away from fossil fuels, I have seen carbon taxes proposed as high as $100 per ton. Someday then, based on financials alone, Brandeis will need to unhook itself from its giant gas line and do something dramatically different.

What could that be? The answer is surprisingly obvious if you consider all future sources of energy. Wind power, solar photovoltaics, nuclear, hydro, biomass and tidal all have one attribute in common: production of electricity, distributed in wires and sold by the thousand watt hours, or kWh. The potential for the wind off the shores of the Commonwealth is spectacular; Cape Wind will someday look like a baby of a wind farm, compared to what we need to put up. Solar is booming, and there’s a growing acceptance of the need for some new nuclear power to even out the intermittency of these ultra clean power sources. Many issues need solving, especially energy storage. Predictions are difficult, especially about the future, but it seems pretty clear to me that the kWh will be taking the place of the modern therm for space heating and, to a good extent, for gallons of vehicle fuels as well.

So how to heat a building with watts? The most efficient way is with high-efficiency heat pumps, and an interesting feature about a heat pump is that it can be run in reverse in summer to provide cooling. How to make a heating and cooling cycle especially efficient? Drill, baby, drill: Connect the heat pump to the naturally 55 degrees Fahrenheit ground below the New England frost line. This is called geothermal (or a better term, geoexchange) heating and cooling, and to work for big buildings it requires either extensive acreage or very deep wells. So here’s a prediction and my hope: Someday the Great Lawn will have a geoexchange loop below it, heating and cooling Shapiro Campus Center. Tower Lot will serve Heller, Mandel and many other upper campus buildings. Higher density and high energy-demanding structures, such as the science complex, may have to rely on a few very deep wells. We would not be pioneering this technology; it’s very well established, and the only reason it’s not more widely used is the cost. Carbon taxes promise to help erase this obstacle, though.

Geoexchange loops feeding big heat pumps is the way to run this university over the long term, given that the watt is the main energy unit of the future. We should start this transition soon. I wonder about the new Lemberg Child Care facility, for example, due to open in March 2014. Is that building going to have heat pumps for heating and cooling, or does it represent yet more square footage added to our natural gas-fired steam lines? If the latter, let it be the last. This university builds strong buildings, and while that is a good thing, it means that buildings built today will be with us for 50, 75, perhaps even 100 years. If the United States government keeps its commitments, this nation needs to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, less than 40 years from now. I say we embrace the electric energy future with any new building projects we undertake. Lets begin down the long road of leaving behind the age of combustion. The energy unit of the future will be the watt, geoexchange is proven to use watts for heating most effectively and so let’s all say it: “Drill, baby, drill.”

Eric Olson is a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.