President Mark Schlissel on Thursday reaffirmed the university’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality and thanked the U-M community for its longstanding support of sustainability.

He made his remarks at a public meeting of the university’s Board of Regents.

In February, the president announced the membership of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, and laid out its charge to develop recommendations, including a timeline, for all U-M campuses to achieve carbon neutrality.

A key focus of the commission is to develop a plan that can be used by others in the state and region to achieve the same goal.

“When I committed U-M to carbon neutrality, I knew that we would not be content with simple solutions, interim fixes or symbolic gestures,” Schlissel said. “The problem of climate change is much too large, complex and important.

“When we are at our best, our impact does not stop at the borders of our campuses. We seek to change society, to help others, and to make significant, measurable differences on the world we share.”

Since the announcement in February, some climate action advocates, including U-M students and local community members, have voiced their concerns with U-M’s overall climate action efforts and objected to the lack of a deadline for achieving carbon neutrality.

Other concerns include the inclusion of energy industry representatives on the commission, expansion of the Central Power Plant, and a call to divest from fossil fuels.

The university has long taken the position to shield its endowment from political pressures and to base its investment decisions solely on financial factors. The university will not divest from fossil-fuel investments.

During the meeting, the president reaffirmed his approach to set a date for carbon neutrality when the university has developed a plan to achieve that goal.

Schlissel also acknowledged the longstanding support of the community to reduce emissions, and in particular the work of the 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reductions Committee — consisting of students, faculty and staff — which recommended several of the current efforts underway that have helped the university achieve a significant reduction.

To date, the university has reduced emissions by more than 7 percent from the 2006 baseline. That represents a reduction of nearly 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to removing 10,500 cars from the road. The university has achieved this reduction while the campus has grown by 20 percent.

The GHG committee recommendation that will have a significant impact on reducing U-M greenhouse gas emissions is the expansion of the Central Power Plant to house a 15-megawatt, natural-gas-fueled turbine.

The plant is a cogeneration facility that produces electricity and steam to provide heat and electricity to most Central Campus and Medical Campus buildings. By using heat that would otherwise be wasted, the system has an overall efficiency of 70-80 percent — about 50 percent higher than conventional power plants.

The new turbine will increase U-M’s capacity to generate more energy on campus and reduce the amount of utility-generated, coal-based electricity it purchases.

“U-M needs reliable heat and electricity to support our public mission. This includes life-saving research, thousands of students who live on campus, and a 24-7 medical center that provides world-class care,” Schlissel said.

“In the near term, there is no viable alternative to fossil fuels at a scale that would not threaten our ability to operate a major research university and regional medical center,” he said.

Preparation for construction at the Central Power Plant is underway, and it is set to be completed in winter 2021.

Other GHG-recommended efforts include continued purchases of renewable energy credits and funding demonstration projects that support research and learning on campus.

The president also addressed concerns surrounding the membership of the commission, noting the importance that the group represent a broad range of stakeholders in order for U-M’s solutions to be scalable and transferrable beyond the campus. The commission’s membership includes faculty, students, administrators and local partners, including energy companies.

“It is absolutely critical for the energy industry to be a part of our pursuit of societal solutions. The companies are the top energy providers for our region and state. They have each made commitments to convert their current generating capacity from fossil fuels to renewables and are engaged in strategy development that will be useful to our own efforts,” the president said.
The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality already has begun to engage with members of the campus community in the initial stages of its work, including through town halls, the commission panels and individual meetings with student activists.

The commission will host a second townhall April 3, and a public session April 9 with Schlissel that will be moderated by Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability Dean.

“I continue to believe that climate change caused by human activity is the defining scientific and social challenge of our age, and that U-M’s approach to involve the regional community, and create scalable and transferable models that can be replicated by others is our best opportunity to produce solutions that will make a difference for the health of our planet and our shared future,” Schlissel said.