President Mark Schlissel answered questions and listened to community members’ concerns Tuesday regarding the University of Michigan’s effort to achieve carbon neutrality.
At a special public session hosted by the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, Schlissel told the Rackham Auditorium audience he shares their commitment to proceed as quickly as possible toward achieving carbon neutrality at U-M.
But, he said, the commission also was charged with engaging widely to capture the collective wisdom and passion of U-M, and to recommend approaches to carbon neutrality that could apply not only on campus, but also in the surrounding communities and region.
“The sad fact is even if we can go carbon neutral as a campus, if it’s only us (and) if it’s not Ann Arbor or southeast Michigan or the state of Michigan or the nation, sadly we’re not big enough to make more than a symbolic difference,” Schlissel said.
Joining Schlissel were three commission members who served as moderators: Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability; Austin Glass, a doctoral student in the College of Engineering; and engineering undergraduate Logan Vear.
Throughout the event, students and other U-M community members asked questions and raised concerns about various topics, including the sustainability of campus building renovations, a Central Power Plant expansion to house a 15-megawatt, natural-gas-fueled turbine, and the carbon neutrality efforts at other universities.
SEAS doctoral student Jonathan Morris cited recent research on methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure and said reports indicate natural gas does not meaningfully contribute to greenhouse gas reduction.
Responding to Morris’ question about when the university will account for the true emissions of the Central Power Plant, Schlissel said the university’s 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reductions Committee originally recommended the installation of the plant’s new natural-gas-fueled turbine. The turbine will reduce the amount of utility-generated, coal-based electricity that U-M purchases.
“What I understand is this turbine, which creates both steam and produces electricity, is twice as efficient right now in terms of the amount of energy we get per volume of gas than our existing ability to do either one of those things separately from one another,” Schlissel said.
“I think it’s beholden upon us to examine the supply chain for the gas that we’re using and buying for our power plant, … understand that supply chain and how much leakage there is, initially account for that leakage as we do our calculations, but then work with the suppliers, who I imagine it’s also in their best interest to minimize leakage,” Schlissel added.
Catherine Badgley, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and in the Residential College, LSA, asked Schlissel to respond to a recent letter from U-M faculty that, in part, urged the university to divest from fossil fuels.
Schlissel said the university does not divest and noted how the U-M endowment helps fund integral components of university operations, including student financial aid, faculty salaries and biomedical research.
“If we begin the process of narrowing what the endowment can invest in, based on very valid arguments and concerns from sincere people, the ability to invest shrinks, the value of the endowment goes down and the institution suffers,” he said.
LSA student Olivia Perfetti asked how the administration will be held accountable for following the recommendations of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, and whether Schlissel would commit to ensuring any recommendations will be executed.
Schlissel said he couldn’t make such a commitment currently, and that it would take away authority from the Board of Regents and himself to make decisions based on recommendations from the commission.
“I would welcome a set of recommendations that struck all the right balances and got us to neutrality absolutely as fast as humanly possible while still maintaining the essence of the university and our overall value systems,” he said.
To help keep the university accountable, Schlissel noted the importance of transparency, and said the university will make data public so that community members can follow on the success of efforts to make U-M carbon neutral.
“You’ll have the information that you need to hold us to account,” he said.
Since I am mentioned by name in this article, I’d like to respond to the above part about the planned Central Power Plant (CPP) expansion.
1) Although President Schlissel mentions the 2015 GHG Report recommendation, what he failed to point out is that this report did not account for methane leaks from natural gas because they were not fully understood at the time. Most of the science [1,2] on methane leaks has emerged in the last few years, so these numbers were not considered in the report from 4 years ago.
2) However, what the 2015 report does mention is that if the Central Power Plant is expanded it will tie UofM, “to fossil fuels for at least two decades and likely more,” and that it, “is unlikely to be viewed as the action of a climate leader,” and that it needs to come with, “concrete plans for alternate fuels,” and finally that this should be, “part of a transition toward carbon-free alternatives.”  Unfortunately, despite this recommendation being made 4 years ago, there is still no plan in place transition our campus infrastructure to renewables.
3) Other research from our very own University of Michigan  demonstrates that utilities are unlikely to plug methane leaks without the proper policy structures because they are regional monopolies and can pass off the cost of leaks to consumers. Indeed, the federal government is currently trying to make it even harder to regulate and measure the leaks , so, Schlissel’s point about looking at the supply chain seems suspect.
4) UofM keeps making the claim that this expansion will allow us to purchase less coal-based energy from DTE, and since natural gas has fewer emissions (ignoring methane leaks, of course) this will help to reduce our carbon footprint. This argument is flawed because DTE is a dynamic entity and the moment they switch over to renewable energy, we will then be the ones burning the dirtiest fuel, and this may last for decades since this infrastructure has such a long lifespan. In fact, in the UofM’s own propaganda  they make the claim that DTE is actually switching to renewables and leading the way, and that is why we were able to sign an agreement to purchase wind-based energy from them. So, it seems like the University is talking out of both sides of its mouth.
5) The wind PPA  is a welcome step in the right direction, so I ask, why don’t we just purchase more of that energy and cancel the plans for the Central Power Plant expansion, which are clearly flawed. This would save us $80 million that we could instead invest now into renewable, carbon-neutral infrastructure so that we can position our University to be a leader on climate change today!
“President Mark Schlissel answered questions and listened to community members’ concerns…”
That’s one way to say it. “Pres. Schlissel evaded questions and insulted community members by not bothering to even be competent in his attempts to placate them with empty words,” would be a more accurate phrasing.
Wow. I know the RECORD is propaganda for the U, but this article was written in such bad faith. Much like Schlissel purporting that he’s “listening” to students.
I’m going to go through this article and refute some things that were said, either by the President, or by the authors of this article.
1. “”The sad fact is even if we can go carbon neutral as a campus, if it’s only us (and) if it’s not Ann Arbor or southeast Michigan or the state of Michigan or the nation, sadly we’re not big enough to make more than a symbolic difference,” Schlissel said.”
UM is one of the largest purchasers from DTE in the state. UM is also the single largest employer in the state. I don’t know how someone can say that us going 100% renewable or carbon neutral wouldn’t make more than a symbolic difference.
And, honestly, even if it *was* just a symbolic difference– why is that a bad thing? Again, UM is a *huge* university. Imagine how much pressure– and inspiration– we could put out to other universities by going carbon neutral. This statement honestly reminds me of a comic I saw as a child– “what if climate change is a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” (https://bit.ly/2VB6qHx)
2. “The turbine will reduce the amount of utility-generated, coal-based electricity that U-M purchases.”
True– but it will tie us to fossil fuels (repeat after me: natural gas is a fossil fuel!) for the next several decades by expanding our natural gas use. We had YEARS to implement the kind of infrastructure that would not require us to replace the boiler (and thus the turbine). In fact, the President’s 2015 GHG committee explicitly recommended that we begin building renewable energy infrastructure ASAP to AVOID having to expand the Central Power Plant. Unsurprisingly, the GHG Committee’s recommendations were ignored, and now the University is forcing this expansion. It’s clear that the University COULD increase their renewable energy infrastructure and/or purchases, as evidenced by yesterday’s wind PPA agreement. They are simply chosing not to.
3. ““I think it’s beholden upon us to examine the supply chain for the gas that we’re using and buying for our power plant, … understand that supply chain and how much leakage there is, initially account for that leakage as we do our calculations, but then work with the suppliers, who I imagine it’s also in their best interest to minimize leakage,” Schlissel added.”
Jonno addressed this in his above comment. It is NOT in the best interest of the suppliers to minimize leakage. How can we trust energy corporations to monitor themselves– especially if the federal government is actively impeding any efforts they might be making?
4. “Schlissel said the university does not divest and noted how the U-M endowment helps fund integral components of university operations, including student financial aid, faculty salaries and biomedical research.”
This is untrue. The university DOES divest. In 1985, we divested from companies active in South Africa* to support economic sanctions against apartheid. In 2000, we divested from tobacco manufacturing companies**. The administration dragged their feet every step of the way, but they DID divest eventually, in large part from massive political pressure from campus activists and the community. We have repeated these instances to Schissel many, many times, so it’s frustratingly unclear to me if he just can’t keep it in his head, or if he is just outright lying.
The natural gas (methane) turbine may increase efficiency but it doesn’t matter how efficient you make it or how clean your coal gets it will always be a dirty fossil fuel that increases your carbon footprint. Why do I say this? We have used the freedom of information act to get the documents the university used to calculate the alleged “green house gas emission savings” for the fossil fuel plant expansion. What we found was that the natural gas expansion is one of the most egregious uses of “greenwashing” that a US organization has ever pulled. They are trying to make fossil fuels look environmentally friendly but it turns out it is just as fishy as it sounds. The bottom line is that If you properly account for methane (natural gas) leaks and that DTE has given in to pressures to set 2050 renewables enegy standards, the fossil fuel plant expansion will INCREASE UM’s carbon footprint. This is shocking given that UM continues to brag about how expanding the use of fossil fuels will get them halfway to their 2025 carbon reduction goals. Folks it is just as dumb as it sounds and is simply shameful.
Adding to the excellent comments made already with some other points as well:
I asked President Schlissel to commit to following the recommendations of the commission on carbon neutrality when they are published. He refused, stating that this decision was up to the regents. I also asked him to make structural changes which will ensure that the regents do not ignore or put off the recommendations. He responded that the administration will be transparent and it will be up to us to hold them to account. Transparency is good but not enough! Every discussion between President Schlissel and the regents about the commission’s recommendations should be advertised in advance, made open to the public, and livestreamed/recorded. And, when the regents vote on these recommendations, we should know how they vote (currently, they vote anonymously, which is extremely undemocratic). Finally, the President should set a timeline for these discussions ensuring that voting will take place soon after the recommendations are published. Otherwise, they’ll be put off indefinitely like the recommendations of the former GHG committee.