US colleges talk green. But they have a dirty secret

A total of 103 university plants emitted an estimated 5.8 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, the equivalent of 1.1 million cars

Reuters
Published : 12 Nov 2022, 10:12 AM
Updated : 12 Nov 2022, 10:12 AM

US universities tout their energy-efficient buildings, their environmental course offerings and their research on climate change. Some have culled oil stocks from their investment portfolios.

Yet dozens of America’s leading schools still use some of the dirtiest fossil fuels to light, heat and cool their campuses, a examination of the nation’s largest university power plants has found. Most of these facilities use equipment that cranks out smog pollution at rates that exceed the average generated by the boilers and turbines powering the nation’s commercial electric utilities, oil refineries and paper mills, the news agency’s analysis of emissions data shows.

The list of big emitters includes elite Ivy League schools, large public universities and small private colleges. Dartmouth College burns sludgy oil. The University of North Carolina clings to coal. So does the University of Kentucky, where a campus boiler used to generate steam heat emits poisonous mercury at a rate that puts it among the worst coal-fired power plants nationwide. Harvard University, home to a $51 billion endowment, uses fuel oil to stoke two highly polluting steam-heat boilers installed when John F. Kennedy was America’s president.

The four universities said their power plants operate within regulatory pollution limits. They add that they are using some renewable energy on campus to reduce their carbon footprint.

Energy production is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Universities are part of the problem. That’s because many operate their own plants to ensure themselves a supply of cheap and reliable power, and to avoid dependence on surrounding electric grids that often are decaying from age and underinvestment.

Most of the operations reviewed are so-called cogeneration plants. In addition to electricity, they produce steam for heating buildings. Some burn multiple fuels.

To understand how these facilities stack up against large-scale energy producers that supply electricity to homes and businesses, according to pollution data calculated by the federal government for 103 campus power plants at 93 universities. These were the only college plants large enough to warrant tracking by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The EIA emissions figures are estimates based on a variety of factors, including the type of equipment and fuel used by any given power plant. This information was available for 2013 to 2020.

Combined, these 103 university plants emitted an estimated 5.8 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2020, the equivalent of 1.1 million cars, according to EIA data.

Separately, NOx data from 89 US universities was obtained, some of it publicly available from state regulators, the rest secured through state public records requests. NOx is the shorthand for nitrogen oxides, which help form powerful greenhouse gases, smog and acid rain.

Most of the NOx data comes from emissions tests performed since 2017, plus a handful of results from 2015 and 2016. In contrast to the EIA data, which provides plant-wide estimates of CO2 emissions, the NOx results are narrower. They represent real-time emissions readings taken from specific pieces of combustion equipment operating inside a facility.

While these tests don’t measure a school power plant’s total output of NOx pollution, they do reveal how clean or dirty individual boilers and turbines are, and the environmental consequences of operating them. Regulators consider this data a useful way of pinpointing problems: Aging combustion equipment, even units used only occasionally for backup power, can produce an outsized share of a power plant’s NOx emissions.

Analysis of the two data sets have been revealed:

*Two-thirds of the 89 plants for which obtained NOx data lacked sophisticated pollution controls commonly used in the commercial power market to cut emissions.

*Nearly half of the 103 university plants for which CO2 data burn fuel oil, coal or wood chips at least part of the time. Those energy sources rank among the world’s most carbon-intensive fuels.

*Nearly half of those 103 campus plants produced more CO2 per megawatt hour of power generated in 2020 than did commercial utilities and other generators supplying the electric grid in their areas.

*The absolute volume of carbon dioxide emitted collectively by those 103 campus plants has declined 13.5% since 2013. Still, that drop is less than half the reduction that electric grid power plants achieved over the same time period.

*Nearly a quarter of the campus plants emitted more carbon dioxide in 2020 than they did in 2013.

Anti-coal activist Neil Waggoner said US universities that trumpet leadership and research on climate issues need to make a priority of cleaning up their own generating plants.

“There is a huge amount of hypocrisy here,” said Waggoner, a senior advocate in the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Ohio.

The campus plants fared particularly poorly with their commercial counterparts when it comes to production of NOx. These gases include nitrous oxide, which has a global warming potential 273 times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).

Turbines generating power for ExxonMobil’s refinery in Beaumont, Texas, posted NOx rates in 2021 that were lower than about 95% of the rates recorded in nearly 260 campus pollution tests reviewed, according to EPA data and results from individual combustion units at 89 schools. The comparison was based on a standard EPA metric: pounds of NOx created per million British Thermal Units (Btus) of heat created from fuel combustion.

The college with the highest rate of nitrogen oxide emissions was the University of Wyoming, according to the data. Last year, one of its three 40-year-old coal-fired boilers produced NOx at a rate higher than all other school combustion units analyzed: 0.62 pounds per million Btu. That rate was 9 times higher than the 2021 national average of nearly 2,500 combustion units at work in about 800 grid-connected power plants across the country, according to EPA data and the school’s 2021 emissions test.

The University of Wyoming declined to comment for this story. Wyoming produced 41% of the country’s coal in 2020, the most of any state, according to the EIA’s latest available figures.

For a full explanation of the methodology and data sources used for this report, see this related story.

The Reuters CO2 analysis was vetted by EIA researchers and five industry engineers and scientists who said the news organization’s methodology was sound and the findings were accurate. The highest pollution rates were generated by university power plants burning the dirtiest fossil fuels using combustion equipment that lacked sophisticated emissions controls.

In all but a few cases, the universities reviewed did not exceed their legal pollution limits. Colleges routinely are exempt from the stricter rules governing commercial players because the maximum output of their power plant generators is below 25 megawatts - a key threshold for tighter scrutiny - and because they don’t produce electricity for sale, according to EPA guidelines.

By contrast, large commercial and industrial power plants that produce electricity for the grid are mandated to meet lower emission limits. Last year, 81% of fossil fuel-fired generation was produced by combustion units fitted with advanced add-on pollution-control equipment targeting NOx, according to the EPA.

Just one-third of the 89 university plants for which was obtained NOx data had such modern equipment, according to operating permits and EIA data.

To be sure, a number of universities are taking steps to upgrade their facilities. Still, schools say they face challenges in matching the performance set by big players in the energy industry. One is that power production isn’t part of a university’s core mission of education. These facilities must compete for funding with higher-profile projects. And they sometimes operate in confined spaces in urban settings, hampering expansions and upgrades of power equipment that is often very old.

“You have assets that were supposed to be replaced in 20 or 30 years, but are now lasting 50 years,” said Xavier Rivera Marzán, a veteran campus power plant executive now employed at the University of Texas at Austin. Natural-gas fired equipment installed in 2010 at the university’s power plant ranked among the cleanest in analysis of campus emissions.

Universities account for a small piece of the US pollution pie. America’s commercial electric plants produce far more pollution by volume than colleges do.

Still, more than 80% of campus power plants analyzed are classified as a major source of pollution under the federal clean air program, according to their operating permits on file with the EPA and state environmental regulators.

One such plant is in America’s largest city. About a decade ago, New York University, a private institution in Manhattan known for its arts and business programs, unveiled a new power plant that burns natural gas and fuel oil. NYU said at the time - and still does so today - that it’s one of greenest universities in the country. This year it launched a sustainable engineering initiative because “climate change is the single most important issue affecting humanity,” Jelena Kovačević, dean of the engineering school, said in a promotional video.

Emissions data show that NYU’s plant, which emitted 42,148 tons of CO2 in 2020, performed poorly against its peers. Out of 103 campus plants reviewed , about 80% generated less CO2 per megawatt hour of energy produced than NYU did in 2020, according to EIA figures. The NYU plant burned mostly natural gas that year, but also nearly 8,400 barrels of fuel oil, EIA data show.

NYU disputes the EIA’s numbers and the findings. University spokesperson Shonna Keogan said the government’s modeling underestimates the amount of steam energy the school’s cogeneration plant produces, making the CO2 emissions rate appear higher. NYU calculates that its 2020 carbon dioxide emissions rate was just 40% of what the EIA data show. Still, the university said it has no metering system in place to measure steam generation.

EIA energy analyst Tyson Brown said the administration stands behind its modeling, which takes steam production into account. “I think this is the best publicly available estimate that exists,” Brown said.

Coal's lasting legacy

A challenge facing some schools: weaning themselves off coal.

The University of Kentucky continues to burn this high-carbon fuel in its central heating plant at its campus in Lexington.

Boiler No. 5 - installed before 1977, according to its operating permit - produced mercury pollution at a rate higher than that emitted by the combustion equipment at nearly every coal-fired power plant in the United States: 2.86 pounds per trillion Btu, according to the results of a 2021 campus emissions test seen. Mercury is naturally present in coal and is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and other organs, according to the EPA.

In a statement, the University of Kentucky said it is committed to environmental compliance and that its boilers meet regulatory requirements. It did not dispute the accuracy of the mercury readings. But it said emission rates from its boilers “aren’t comparable” to those from large power plants because those facilities are subject to more stringent regulations. The school said its use of coal dropped 91% from 2010 to 2021. A spokesperson said the university has turned to other fuels, mainly natural gas, to light and heat the campus.

The University of North Carolina also clings to coal at its flagship campus in Chapel Hill. The school in 2010 pledged to stop burning coal by 2020. It later backed off that promise, in part because it said that time frame had been arbitrary. UNC has retained two coal-fired boilers even as it has turned increasingly to natural gas to heat and light its buildings. About half of the school’s energy now comes from natural gas, according to EIA data.

Last year, the university prevailed in a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. Those nonprofit environmental groups had sought to limit the amount of coal UNC could burn at its campus power plant.

In a statement, Chief Sustainability Officer Michael Piehler said UNC plans to stop burning coal, without specifying a timeline. It has slashed coal use: In 2020, UNC burned about half the coal it did in 2015, EIA data shows. The plant has reduced CO2 emissions by about 25% since 2015 to 192,233 tons from 255,665 tons.

Even so, UNC’s CO2 emission rate of 792 pounds per megawatt hour is 27% higher than the average of power plants feeding the local electric grid, according to analysis of 2020 EIA data. And its CO2 ranked near the top third of the worst rates posted by campus plants reviewed.

Chapel Hill resident Lillie Vanderhall has lived in the shadow of the UNC power plant for 13 years. She said smoke and odors from the facility irritate her bronchitis and sinus problems when she sits on her porch with her little dog, October.

“It just stinks,” Vanderhall said. “You can’t hardly catch your breath sometimes.”

UNC declined to comment.

Over the past five years, meanwhile, the university built a new $100-million athletic center and renovated the home of the school’s music department for $15 million. UNC raises around half a billion dollars annually to spend on programs and projects and to supplement its endowment, according to its fundraising reports.

“Donors like to get their names on buildings rather than the scrubbers on power plants,” said Julian Dautremont, director of programs at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. That organization advocates for universities to lead on environmental issues.

UNC declined to comment on its spending priorities. The university has pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. It has undertaken other environmental efforts on campus, including adding electric buses to its fleet, making buildings more energy efficient and offering a “sustainable enterprise” concentration of study at its business school.

UNC’s power plant poses environmental risks beyond carbon emissions. Burning coal produces ash that contains arsenic, mercury and cadmium. These heavy metals can cause neurological problems and cancer in humans and can leach into drinking water, according to the EPA.

UNC pays trucks to haul its coal ash and other waste 60 miles north across the state line to South Boston, Virginia, a hamlet of 8,000 people. There it is dumped into an unlined pit, an average of 40 tons a day, according to the town manager. The rural community is about 60% Black and the median household income is $40,087, about half that of Chapel Hill, according to US Census data.

Municipalities that accept this waste typically do it for the revenue and often lack the means of properly monitoring and evaluating the risks, said Avner Vengosh, a professor of environmental quality at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has researched coal ash disposal.

Operators of coal-fired power plants take “the environmental impact away from the users and put it in the rural and mostly Black” communities, Vengosh said. “That’s the sad thing.”

Thomas Raab, South Boston’s town manager, said the community’s disposal site is equipped with a groundwater monitoring system that has not detected heavy metals. South Boston gets about $30,000 a year from UNC for taking the coal ash, Raab said, depending on how much is produced.

“It’s not something we’re doing blindly and don’t understand what we’re doing,” Raab said.

Not-so-green Ivies

In New Hampshire, Dartmouth College last year announced steps it was taking to address a warming planet. The school said it would commit $400 million to advance teaching and research on climate issues. It said it was shrinking fossil fuel holdings in its endowment and vowed to reduce energy use on campus.

“We must aim higher and be more ambitious in our goals,” Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon said in a press release at the time.

Dartmouth continues to rely exclusively on burning fuel oil at its campus power plant. This heavy oil, known as No. 6 bunker fuel, contains a number of pollutants, including potential human carcinogens, leading some places to restrict its use. New York state, for example, has banned the use of bunker fuel for heating buildings effective July 2023.

Dartmouth’s facility, which dates to 1898, produces carbon dioxide at a rate of nearly 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour of energy generated. That’s nearly twice the average rate of power plants feeding the electric grid in surrounding New England, according to 2020 data from the EIA.

Dartmouth disputes the EIA’s methodology. The college calculates that its CO2 rate is slightly lower than that of the local grid, or about half the rate found for the college based on EIA data. The school said the agency underestimates its steam production, a key portion of its energy output, making its CO2 rate look artificially high.

The EIA’s Brown said the government stands behind its calculations. He said Dartmouth’s claim that its fuel oil-fired plant emits CO2 at rates lower than New England’s grid doesn’t add up because the region has a relatively clean grid, one supplied heavily by carbon-free nuclear power and renewable energy sources.

NOx is also a challenge for Dartmouth. The boilers in its plant average 30 years of age and lack modern pollution controls, according to the university’s state air permit. The facility this year emitted the pollutant at a rate nearly four times higher than the average among US power plants connected to the grid, according to EPA data and results from a Dartmouth emissions test conducted in February. Dartmouth does not dispute these figures.

Finding an alternative fuel source for its power plant has proved difficult. Dartmouth does not have easy access to cleaner-burning natural gas because there are few pipelines in New England. In 2020, the school dropped a $200 million-plus project to burn wood chips to heat most of its campus.

Environmental activists opposed the idea, saying the school would be substituting one carbon-intensive fuel for another.

The college said it’s working to boost energy efficiency on campus, exploring renewable alternatives and reacting to climate change with a rigor and commitment “to match the urgency of the situation.”

Harvard University is another Ivy League school that cites the urgency to fight climate change. Last year, President Lawrence Bacow said the school's endowment no longer had direct investments in fossil fuel exploration or development companies, and that it would not make such investments in the future "given the need to decarbonize the economy."

Harvard’s 113-year-old Blackstone Steam Plant, which provides heat and electricity to university buildings at its campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, remains reliant on fossil fuels. Two 1960s-era boilers that run on fuel oil and natural gas produced NOx at a rate of 0.16 pounds per million Btu in 2021. That was more than double the national average rate produced by grid-linked power plant boilers and turbines, according to 2021 EPA data. That performance put Harvard’s boilers among the most-polluting equipment - the top 15% - at the 89 universities whose NOx was analyzed.

Harvard did add a cleaner gas-fired turbine at the Blackstone facility in 2016 equipped with advanced pollution controls. That has lowered the plant’s overall NOx pollution rate to 0.039 pounds per million Btu - 76% below the rate of its aging boilers - as the use of fuel oil has dropped, the school said in a statement.

Harvard said its current climate action plan aims to eliminate the use of fossil fuels to heat, cool and power buildings and vehicles on its campus by 2050.

UMass outperforms Harvard

Some schools excel at holding down emissions. University power plants with the lowest pollution rates share some things in common, the Reuters analysis found. Some are located in states whose air quality rules are stricter than federal standards. None use coal or bunker fuel. And they have avoided other dirty fuels such as old tires or wood chips.

Take the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a taxpayer-funded school whose endowment is about 1% the size of Harvard’s $51 billion. In 2009, UMass completed a $133 million gas-fired power plant to replace its old coal-fired facility. Pollution controls at the new plant are the same ones used by commercial power plants that operate under the strictest federal limit.

As a result, the school’s NOx levels are among the lowest of the 89 universities analyzed, and about 90% below the national average of boilers and turbines powering the electric grid, according to EPA data.

The University of California, Santa Cruz follows a similar strategy in a state known for having some of the most stringent pollution limits in the country. The university’s main gas-fired turbine, which went online in 2015, produced NOx at a rate of just 0.0066 pounds per million Btu in a 2021 emissions test, or 91% below the average rate among commercial power plant combustion units.

Other schools are working to cut their pollution levels by making upgrades, too. But they often are continuing to use old infrastructure during the transition.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2020 installed two new natural gas-fired turbines that produce NOx at rates about 90% below the national average of equipment generating electricity for the grid. Still, the school has five back-up boilers, three of which are more than 50 years old, that emit NOx at rates up to 20 times higher than the modern gas turbines, according to MIT emission test results from 2021 and 2022. Those boilers, which burn natural gas and fuel oil, lack sophisticated emissions control equipment, according to MIT disclosures to state environmental regulators.

MIT, one of the world’s best engineering schools, said it has studied how to modify the old boilers to run cleaner at its urban campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its conclusion: Further upgrades weren’t feasible, in part because of space limitations at the plant, MIT said in a statement.

Wesleyan University in Connecticut is in the process of replacing corroded, decades-old steam pipe systems that leak heat destined for classrooms and dormitories. Wesleyan generated CO2 at rates above the average of plants supplying their local electric grids in 2020, according to EIA data.

The private school is taking steps to improve its efficiency, opting for a hot-water system that doesn’t require the liquid to be superheated to keep its buildings warm. Steam has to be heated to at least 325 degrees, and hot water only to about 130 degrees, said Andrew Plotkin, a project engineer in Wesleyan’s facilities department. Wesleyan projects that difference will reduce its natural gas use by about a third.

“It’s the low-hanging fruit of infrastructure modification,” Plotkin said.

The University of Missouri at Columbia over the past decade cut annual coal consumption at its campus power plant by 93% to 6,100 tons, according to 2020 EIA data. Natural gas, wood chips and wind have taken up the slack.

CO2 emissions during that time have dropped 49% to about 137,000 tons annually, according to EPA data.

But wood chips, which the university says supply 29% of its energy needs, have their own pollution problems. Michael O’Connor, director of energy management at the University of Missouri, said this biomass insulates the campus from volatile commodity prices and disruptions to its supply of natural gas, which accounts for 60% of the school’s fuel. Wood chips are cheap and their CO2 production can be offset by new tree growth. But critics say it can take decades for trees to grow big and absorb enough CO2 to balance the carbon ledger, a luxury of time that a warming planet might not have.

During a June 2021 emissions test, the University of Missouri’s biomass-fueled boiler produced 30 pounds of NOx per hour, a 30% increase over 2017 levels, according to test results obtained.

Harry Frank, managing engineer of the school’s power plant, said such fluctuations are “normal” with wood chips. The facility still operates below its annual limit of 111 tons (222,000 pounds) of NOx set by state regulators, he added.

Bill McKibben, a professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College and a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, said wood chips are inefficient and packed with carbon for each unit of energy they produce. Middlebury created the country’s first undergraduate environmental studies program in 1965 and plans to run its campus completely on renewable power by 2028.

The college’s power plant currently runs on wood chips, natural gas and biogas produced from cow manure and food waste. The facility’s 2020 CO2 rate was lower than about 70% of the schools analyzed, and on par with its local grid.

More broadly, McKibben said, universities have a particular responsibility to clean up emissions in their own backyards.

“Campuses have an obligation to be leaders here, not followers,” he said. “Every day that students see an old-school power plant, they're being educated about the past, not the future.”

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher