As the U.S. Senate recently prepared to vote on legislation to fight climate change, Zack Porter stood in front of Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and posed a simple question: Why can't you do what the University of Montana has already done? Porter was referring to the university's new climate action plan, which calls to make the campus carbon neutral by 2020.
"I told them that the University of Montana has embarked on a mission to achieve carbon neutrality," says Porter, former president of UM's Climate Action NOW group. "I told them that we're working toward it right now on campuses in Montana. When is the whole state going to catch up? When is the nation going to catch up?"
Porter's question went unanswered. Days after his visit, the Senate couldn't come up with a resolution. Without the 60 votes needed, and despite efforts from lobbyists like Porter, national climate legislation was dead in the water.
While national and international climate change action has been frustratingly slow, small-scale plans are being hatched at campuses nationwide. For UM, the first real push came in 2007 when President George Dennison signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), pledging the school to climate change action. In accordance with that commitment, UM students, faculty and staff conducted an extensive catalogue of all campus greenhouse gas emissions and released the 2008 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report. This April, UM took it one step further, unveiling its first climate action plan.
The detailed, 96-page document offers a multitude of solutions, some involving huge investment costs and others requiring a wholesale shift in how the university conducts its business. Though the plan was co-authored primarily by Cherie Peacock, UM's sustainability coordinator for the Office of Sustainability, and Erica Bloom, the sustainability coordinator for the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) Sustainability Center, it involved a mass of consultants: technical and educational groups made up of engineering, forestry, conservation, alternative energy, business and transportation experts from on and off campus, plus student environmental groups. The plan suggests sharp greenhouse gas reductions, with the ultimate goal to make UM carbon neutral in 10 years.
Meeting the plan's target won't be easy. In fact, some critics question the university's approach to reaching the goal. With those concerns in mind, we analyze UM's more complex challenges, and detail possible solutions—some of which the university is already considering.
A month after the climate action plan became public, UM finished construction on its first designated green building. The Payne Family Native American Center is a striking 300,000 square-foot, $8.6 million structure designed with two distinct qualities: It uses American Indian culture as inspiration for the architecture, and it's built according to sustainable standards of Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), a third-party certification system created by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.
The Native American Center received a LEED gold rating—the second highest designation next to platinum—in green design categories like water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. It's built with a ground source cooling and heating system that uses the storage capacity of the soil to cool the center in the summer and heat it in the winter. The building itself is framed with steel and uses structural insulated panels (SIP) made of plywood and foam from Belgrade, Mont. Recycled sunflower shells comprise the interior walls, larch wood spans the floors, and 12 pine poles reclaimed from the Blackfoot River support the mezzanine.
The center represents the university's emphasis on green building. In 2009, UM established a policy that any new campus structure needed to be built at least to LEED silver certification. The climate action plan adds to that policy, suggesting all existing UM buildings be brought up to "stringent energy efficiency standards" through LEED EBOM (Existing Buildings, Operation, and Maintenance) certification.
Constructing more buildings, green or not, increases greenhouse gas emissions. Almost a third of greenhouse gases worldwide can be attributed to the construction and building sectors. UM's climate action plan points out that energy consumption for building-related infrastructure "results in the largest climate impact attributed to the University of Montana." In addition, the university's 2008 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report found a steady increase in emissions since 2000, and it attributes part of that rise directly to construction of new campus buildings.
President Dennison has received strong criticism for squeezing more buildings onto campus than any other UM president, adding 1.3 million square feet over the last 20 years. Eliminating even more open space—whether it is the University Golf Course or grassy squares between buildings—also leaves a lot to be desired.
A more immediate problem may be UM's reliance on LEED certification. In April, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry—designer for the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, among others—told Bloomberg Businessweek and PBS, "A lot of LEEDs are given for bogus stuff. A lot of the things they do really don't save energy."
Fred Bernstein, architect critic and contributor to The New York Times, backed Gehry up in his May design blog by writing, "Far too often, LEED gives eco-cred to buildings that, in many cases, shouldn't have been built." He offers the example of Las Vegas' CityCenter Complex, which consists of up to 18 million square feet of air-conditioned rooms in the Mojave Desert. Bernstein's point: There are no square footage limits for LEED, which means buildings can be excessive, or use more material than necessary even though the material is considered sustainable.
Other aspects of the LEED point system are questionable. Jobe Bernier, a LEED certified architectural designer for A&E Architects in Missoula, helped designer Eric Simonsen and architect Daniel Glenn on the Native American Center. He supports LEED, in general, but says some of the criticisms are well founded.
"There definitely are ways to manipulate the system," Bernier says. "You can do things like get points for a green power purchase where you have funds in your project for green power and that [money] just goes to an agency that develops green power. That one seems to me a bit like a point chase."
One of the bigger issues with LEED is that it certifies materials like timber that often have to be shipped from far away—a problem that UM met honorably by getting local wood despite forgoing rating points. Though there are signs of improvement, LEED has a reputation for certifying materials that are costly and quite often don't take into account the climate and resources of individual places. In other words, a building in Montana shouldn't be certified in the same way one would be in, say, the fluctuating humidity of Mississippi.
It's hard to argue against UM updating old or building new structures, especially when it comes to something as culturally and functionally important as the Native American Center. Modern facilities are an essential part of a university's ability to beckon new students.
If UM does continue erecting new buildings or renovating the old ones according to LEED standards, follow-up is key. Missoula green builder and consultant Steve Loken says it's a mistake to think the LEED brand is all you need.
"It's important that people don't just assume that when you get the gold LEED rating you've fulfilled your goals for energy efficiency," he says. "You have to commission a follow-up afterward to make sure that the application of energy conserving measures work. Because sometimes they don't."
However, LEED is not the only answer for UM. In fact, building green doesn't require a third-party ratings system at all. Though Montana is starting to catch up with incorporating energy efficiency standards into statewide building codes, progressive states like Oregon, California and Massachusetts have requirements that surpass, in some cases, LEED's. UM could choose any of those state's standards as a model instead. Such a decision would allow UM to still hire good local businesses like A&E to do the work, and avoid paying extra for LEED certification. It would also allow for more flexibility to use local materials and site-specific mechanical designs, instead of focusing on the items that gain LEED points.
LEED is a brand, and, in that sense, it makes for good PR. But UM can do better by marketing itself as a leader in innovative, local-centric customized building that goes beyond what's required in LEED's broad list of qualifications. What better place to begin working toward that goal than a higher learning institution full of students interested in working on energy technology projects?
Transportation is one of the biggest carbon emitters on UM's campus, accounting for 31.6 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the areas of air travel, commuting and the university's fleet of vehicles.
UM's climate action plan has already begun to implement important transportation solutions such as incentives for students, faculty and staff to walk, ride a bike or bus to school, and ensuring fleet vehicles are compact, hybrid or use biodiesel.
For air travel, UM is looking toward purchasing "high quality" carbon offsets to balance out the extra emissions that can't be mitigated otherwise. In general, buying offsets means UM will fund projects that actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The plan suggests working with companies like Clear Sky Climate Solutions, a local group with two Montana projects underway: one that deals with rangeland and another with dairy methane. By purchasing carbon offsets, UM can keep emitting carbon through air travel because they are balancing those emissions by supporting carbon sequestration projects elsewhere.
Experts aren't sold on the concept of buying carbon offsets. National companies have made a business out of selling carbon offsets with the driving incentive of making money—not helping the environment—without much oversight. A study in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Policy found just 60 percent of the carbon-offset projects it looked at actually provided evidence that they were reliable.
Steve Running, regent professor of ecology in UM's School of Forestry, is among the skeptics.
"When you buy an airline ticket you can pay something like an extra $25 and supposedly buy a carbon offset for your flight," says Running, who did not contribute to the climate action plan. "That's a completely unregulated market and nobody really knows whether it truly offsets the carbon emissions that you bought it for."
A 2008 study from the congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ranked forestation and agricultural carbon sequestration projects—like Clear Sky Climate Solutions' rangeland project—near the bottom of a list for "very credible" carbon offsets. That's because measuring how much carbon is sequestered over long periods of time in a rangeland or forest is tricky. You could buy an offset that plants trees, but what happens when those trees burn in a fire or die from other means? If you buy an offset for carbon sequestration in grasslands, how do you continue to monitor carbon cycles in an exact way so that emissions and sequestration is always in balance?
"What I worry about is that carbon offsets give people a false sense of accomplishment," says Running. "If everyone flying around is generating the emissions that they are, we've got to face up to that. We may decide that we'll stay home more often and we may decide that we'll learn to live with it, but not facing up to the true numbers doesn't help in decision making at all."
Cherie Peacock, one of the primary authors of UM's plan, is already working to address concerns about carbon offsets.
She gives the example of The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, one of the first carbon neutral colleges in the United States. The college achieved its goals with some carbon offsetting, including funding a specific program in Portland, Ore., in which traffic lights are retimed so cars aren't idling and congestion is diminished. It's still not easy to calculate the exact numbers of emissions being saved by the project, and therefore the offset isn't exact. But unlike blindly buying offsets from just any national company, investing in specific, direct emissions projects as a partnership with environmental trusts cuts down on potential smoke and mirrors.
Even better, Peacock says she would like to see carbon offsets used for local projects that would be both easily quantifiable and have positive impacts on the community. Cutting corners, she says, is not part of UM's plan.
"There's a lot we're learning about the carbon offset world," says Peacock. "There's a difference between carbon offsets and renewable energy credits. For carbon offsetting, it's got to be a project that would not have happened if we had not funded it or somehow gotten involved. It also has to be calculated and then certified. And if you purchase it and sell that as an offset, then it's retired; it can't get counted more than once."
Carbon offsets might be UM's only solution for transportation emissions. President Dennison says, at a minimum, the university must purchase equipment and products for day-to-day campus business like computers, athletic gear, medical supplies and furniture that often is acquired through less than green means.
"We rely on trains, airplanes and trucks to get the equipment and products that we need to use in our operations because none of it is available locally," Dennison says.
In this case, Dennison points out that alternative transportation is a systemic issue that requires more than a climate plan to solve. Unwilling to sit back and wait for transportation systems to change, he strongly suggests the university community get involved in the political process of transportation legislation so there is a premium put on using alternatives.
"There are so few options right now, nationally," Dennison says. "There's work going on, but it's going to take a while and we need to be pushing as hard as we can to get the policy developments that will allow us to make progress."
The climate action plan lists four renewable energy generation options for campus: wind, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic and a biomass plant. Bob Duringer, UM's vice president of administration and finance, took a long look last December at the cost-effectiveness of all four options and decided biomass was a major key to UM achieving its goals.
In March, he visited biomass plants in Canada and interviewed several companies before settling on one called McKinstry, which has an office in Missoula. A biomass plant for UM would generate both heat and energy for the school using woody biomass—excess wood from beetle kill, thinning projects and harvest scraps—most of which would be collected from UM's own Lubrecht Experimental Forest. The plant is projected to reduce the school's consumption of natural gas by 60 percent.
UM has not fine-tuned the details, but Duringer says the biomass plant will cost between $10 million and $13 million and take from 15 to 18 months to build. It's a steep price for any project and Duringer still has to bring the idea to the Board of Regents to get approval for the huge initial costs.
It's also important to consider from where the fuel for a biomass plant will be harvested. The farther the distance between a biomass plant and its source of fuel, the more diesel you use to haul the wood. As the main source of UM's fuel, Lubrecht is a 45-mile drive from Missoula, so the transportation energy used for that has to be docked off any gains UM makes with producing biomass energy.
There is also the issue of perception when it comes to forest management and pollution. Several articles, including a July 5 story in the Washington Post, accused biomass proponents of using the technology as an excuse to cut more trees—and release more greenhouse gases—just to make more money.
Another dilemma surrounding biomass energy in recent months concerns the fact that burning biomass also releases more C02. A study commissioned for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources by the Manomet Center for Conservation Science concluded that use of even sustainably harvested forest biomass would increase C02 emissions 3 percent over coal-fired power by 2050.
Along with C02 release comes the release of particulate into the air, which can sit as smog in the valley for days. That is a hot topic for Missoula, a city already dealing with poor air quality.
Despite the high costs for building a biomass plant, one selling point of renewable energy is that it eventually pays for itself.
"The money you save by not using natural gas then goes to the debt you had incurred from borrowing money," Duringer says. "So it's almost a self liquidating situation."
The details of making biomass energy at UM more efficient is complicated—but offers some very real solutions. Biomass expert Dave Atkins works with a multi-state program called Fuels for Schools and Beyond, a partnership between the USDA Forest Service State Private Forestry and the Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development Area, Inc. His job is to figure out the logistics for schools, hospitals and other institutions that want to build a biomass plant; specifically, how big the plant will be and where the fuel will come from.
Lubrecht Experimental Forest will use more diesel than something closer, says Atkins, but the forest is still within an energy efficient radius for UM. That means the energy produced by the biomass plant exceeds the energy spent in the diesel it takes to harvest and transport it there. Energy savings, according to Atkins and other UM researchers, don't change much between a transport distance of 45 miles and 80 miles. Still, UM's goal is to reduce the use of fossil fuels like diesel. In that light, other options exist.
Steve Running and UM graduate student Heath Carey have been working on a project with the city on a poplar plantation that's watered with treated sewage effluent at Missoula's water treatment plant just three miles away. The poplars are a decade away from being a viable fuel source, but eventually they could be harvested in batches, dried and fed into UM's biomass plant.
"When you put treated sewage effluent on a tree farm, the trees are getting water and nutrients and they just grow like weeds," Running says. "We could have co-generating heating sources that could use those trees as a heating source."
Atkins also has ideas to address the biomass distance problem. One would be to create more urban forests in Missoula like the poplar grove. Specifically, Atkins would like to see alder groves planted around town because alders would not only be a great wood source, they also add nitrogen to the soil for other agricultural purposes. Local trees that die from ice storms or other conditions could be used in the plant, and even more trees could be grown on nearby farms and ranches that have fallow or marginal land to offer. In addition, forest management projects that happen in nearby forests at Blue Mountain or Pattee Canyon always yield leftover wood, which could be a supplemental biomass source.
In regard to the negative perception of forest management, the solution might lie in the natural supply and demand of economics. Woody biomass is basically comprised of leftover pieces and dead, otherwise unusable material, so it doesn't sell for much. That means harvesting whole forests for biomass wouldn't be smart economics.
"If you're going to do a treatment, whether it's for wildlife habitat, wood production or reducing fire hazard," says Atkins, "you're going to want to get as much value as you can. You're going to sell logs to sawmills that are paying more, or round wood to a manufacturer. Biomass energy is the janitor that comes along and cleans up the leftovers. It would be against anyone's personal interest to cut down just anything for biomass."
The aforementioned Massachusetts study that claims biomass would release more C02 than coal also includes some important stipulations that are key to UM's success with biomass. The study says a plant that uses biomass for both heat and electricity—and not just one or the other—would produce "significant carbon emission reductions." UM plans to build a plant that does exactly that.
What the Massachusetts study leaves out is that biomass burned in a plant is usually going to burn one way or the other—whether it's burned in slash piles or incinerated in a forest fire. Even if it sits dying in a forest, it's still releasing carbon emissions. So why not use it in a biomass plant? Plus, adds Atkins, studies like these shouldn't just focus on coal or biomass plant emissions, but the whole process of obtaining material for energy: The emissions for harvesting biomass are far less than the emissions from harvesting coal.
Pollution might be an issue, but if the biomass plant is engineered correctly, that slash and dead wood could be burned in a high quality combustion system, which cuts down on smoke and includes bag filters for particulate matter. That's less smoke and particulate than slash burning or forest fires. Atkins expects there will be discussions about biomass and air quality, but he says he hopes people can see the advantages of biomass.
"Especially in the West, it's not if it's going to burn, it's when, where and how you burn it," he says. "We can do this in a way that really minimizes that pollution emission and that's a better place for it to be."
Big change vs. small change
Any solid climate action plan calls for direct energy efficiency and conservation measures, and UM's is no exception. Before any large-scale projects like the biomass plant will be implemented, the plan calls for energy efficiency upgrades, lighting retrofits, optimized heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, and improved natural cooling projects like planting trees to create shade. Already, UM has gone through energy audits and started retrofit projects to make sure a biomass plant would only provide energy for buildings with maximum efficiency.
Another aspect of the plan calls for behavioral changes. One group of UM students has started a social marketing group that evaluates how to encourage peers to make eco-conscious choices on campus, such as taking shorter showers and not wasting electricity.
To the extent that UM's climate action plan is about reducing its carbon footprint, all the shorter showers and light bulb changes are absolute no-brainers. How to connect individual action with national policy, however, is something climate action plans often neglect, even though legislation would make green technology more accessible and less costly.
Author and activist Derrick Jensen has notably criticized green projects and campaigns that focus on individual action as opposed to large-scale political change. In the July/August 2009 issue of Orion he wrote:
"Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet?"
The fact that climate action plans are still not impacting national policy might mean there's some element missing from them, giving merit to criticism coming from activists like Jensen: If we green every single campus in the U.S., will that lead to greener transportation systems, or drive corporations to pursue biomass instead of coal, or, most importantly, spur the U.S. government to finally pass meaningful climate legislation?
In a short statement at the end of UM's climate plan it states: "We intend to expand opportunities for students to engage with climate mitigation and adaptation, both through campus initiatives and work with organizations at the national and international levels." The one paragraph section goes on to suggest helping students seek climate change internships, procure travel funding for conferences and learn more about how to engage in "real-world problem-solving, and become part of a larger national/international network working to understand and respond to global climate change."
While this is a step in the right direction, it should be more than an afterthought. UM already does an admirable job incorporating climate action and sustainability into its curriculum. For instance, a program called The Green Thread gives faculty the resources to incorporate green ideas into the classroom. UM also developed a Climate Change Studies minor in just the last year, which is one of the first of its kind in the nation. But some on campus would like to see the lessons learned from these programs used to affect larger changes.
"I think people need to have a sufficient change in their own philosophy and behavior such that they then start demanding that of the politicians," says Running. "For all the climate science that we've put out over a good number of years, we still don't have politicians ready to make difficult votes. That just guarantees the emissions track will keep marching upward. So the only way the politicians are going to get guts is for a larger fraction of society to start hammering away on them, and say, 'You vote these sort of policies in or we'll vote you out. Take your pick.'"
Zack Porter agrees with pushing the country toward climate solutions, and he says UM's plan is not about just changing light bulbs. Though it's easy to point out what more needs to be done, he says UM's achievements in just the last year reflect a walk-the-talk attitude.
"This climate action plan is just the kind of demonstration project we need to show our legislators why legislation dealing with energy is so important and how effective it can be," Porter says.
Even after lobbying in D.C. and watching legislation opportunities go nowhere, he's adamant about universities with plans like UM's aggressively putting their ideas in the spotlight.
"The climate action train has left the station," Porter says. "It has certainly left the station in other parts of the world and it's starting to leave the station on a small scale across the United States, especially on college campuses. It's time for legislation to do the same."