Opinion | Michigan’s largest universities must lead on renewable energy

Tom Porter is a retired venture capitalist and executive in residence at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. He now runs the Porter Family Foundation and serves on the board of the Michigan Climate Action Network.

The University of Michigan and Michigan State University work hard to lead the Big Ten in many things – football and basketball among them. They should add clean energy to that list and be a leader on solutions to climate change – the most important issue of our time.  

It only makes sense that the transition to clean, less costly renewable energy should be led by the educational institutions that do the research on sustainability, technology and energy economics.  

K-12 schools in Michigan and throughout the country have been adding solar panels to their roofs and saving energy costs in the process. About 4 million children in the U.S. attend schools with solar. Also, the business community is way out in front of education institutions in establishing clear, measurable plans and strategies to be powered by clean energy. At least 131 major companies have set 100 percent renewable energy goals to reduce costs, minimize climate impacts, and be the sustainable businesses their customers want to support.

Our state’s research universities should strive to be “leaders and best” in the Big 10 to lower the carbon footprint on their campuses and in their communities. The table below shows where UM and MSU stand in comparison to their peer institutions in the Big Ten:

While MSU is competitive in the Big Ten, UM does not even compete as it ranks near the bottom. Moreover, a recent piece in The Michigan Daily argued that UM is not likely to meet its modest goal of a 25-percent reduction in emissions by 2025.  

MSU and UM not only lag their peer universities in the Big Ten but they also lag the other eight colleges and universities in Michigan that have set emissions goals. Small colleges with more limited resources like Calvin, Aquinas and Kalamazoo College as well as larger institutions like Grand Valley State, Wayne State University, and Western Michigan University all have adopted more aggressive goals than MSU and UM.

Perhaps it is because when U-M and MSU established their goals, the costs of renewable energy were much higher than the costs of coal and other conventional sources of fossil fuels. The idea of reaching carbon neutrality at that time would have been daunting. Yet other colleges and universities were willing to take on the challenge. And today the costs of renewables are less than all of the fossil fuel alternatives as shown below.

Research analysts at Morgan Stanley contend that renewable energy like solar and wind power are “hurtling towards a level of ubiquity where not even politics can hinder them. Renewable energy is simply becoming the cheapest option, fast.” Globally, in countries with favorable wind conditions, the costs associated with wind power “can be as low as one-half to one-third that of coal- or natural gas-fired power plants. We project that by 2020, renewables will be the cheapest form of new power generation across the globe. By our forecasts, in most cases favorable renewable economics rather than government policy will be the primary driver of changes to utilities’ carbon emissions levels.”  

With renewable energy costs projected to fall even more, isn’t it time for Michigan’s universities to update their sustainability plans?  Updating sustainability plans is a straightforward way for our educational institutions to save money and lower the cost of delivering education. One recent solar installation at MSU is expected to save the university $10 million over 25 years, which the university says will help keep tuition costs down.

Additionally, the finance industry has now developed numerous ways to partner with colleges and universities to help finance the kind of infrastructures that will enable a rapid change to renewable energy.

And, of course, it is the right thing to do to give their students a brighter future.

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Thu, 05/17/2018 - 7:43pm

It should be suspected that these costs are an incomplete picture at best. Are the costs of revamping the distribution system to bring power from far out locations into high demand areas figured into these costs? This is the opposite of what was originally constructed and very expensive. What about the costs of have to have an entire redundant shadow generating capacity in place to pick up low wind times? Not hardy free!! Solar panels and batteries are far from environmentally friendly products when one looks behind the drapes - don't forget those costs or the aesthetic (and ornithological) costs of a land filled with whirling blades . There was a reason wind, after 1000s of years of use was dropped in favor of combustion in less than a 100 years. While you're calling for research, how about nuclear? We have 1000s of ships and subs using this steady reliable power with very good results. Even in the most dramatic failures we've seen, the long term dire predictions never came to pass.

Jim tomlinson
Sun, 05/20/2018 - 6:31am

The costs are costs and renewable are now less. Pretty simple. The future has arrived. Lets stay current rather than fall behind

Alex Sagady
Fri, 05/18/2018 - 4:00pm

Both MSU and UM operate district heating operations to provide space heating to their respective campus buildings. This type of operation requires production of steam that is distributed to campus buildings and such operations are an efficient means of providing such energy needs.

There is no solar or wind alternative that will provide a central steam sources for such operations. While solar or wind can provide electricity on an intermittent basis, there is a limited amount of land available for such installations, particularly for the University of Michigan.

MSU's parking lot solar generation isn't expected to yield a capacity factor much greater than than about 14%. The low slop design of that facility means that snow accumulations on those parking lot solar panels eliminate all solar generation during multiple winter months.

Tue, 05/22/2018 - 10:10am

Solar can't provide steam in a cost-effective way, but solar thermal can provide hot water. Check out the Stanford Energy System Innovations conversion project from steam to hot water if you're interested - granted, Michigan has a very different climate from California, but it's not impossible.

Also, for what it's worth, the solar carports at MSU are tilted to shed snow off the backs, and it's been rare to see snow accumulations that last more than a week or so (I work on campus.)

Wolfgang Bauer
Thu, 05/24/2018 - 4:02pm

Contrary to the claims of MR. Porter, MSU is taking a very active national and international leadership role in converting to renewable power and in emissions reductions. The "recent solar installation at MSU" mentioned by the author is the largest solar carport array anywhere in North America and very likely the entire world; it provides up to 18% of MSU's peak electrical power requirements. In addition, MSU also operates an anaerobic digester to turn organic waste into electric power and organic fertilizer. For the last 5 years MSU has engaged in a very aggressive program to reduce energy consumption all across campus. MSU has deployed a geothermal field for heating the new nursing school building. And 2 years ago MSU terminated coal firing. Ending coal burning alone resulted in CO2 emissions reductions of 50%. (But since this transition was already started in 2005, it is not adequately captured in the 2010 baseline number cited in the article.)

We will continue to deploy renewable power sources as our budgets allow. However, we also need to be mindful that these ventures need to be financially sustainable as well. Achieving environmental goals by just paying a "green" surcharge, as many of our peers do, is not an option that we will consider.

One needs to recognize that solar and wind power are intermittent. We at MSU have decided to make a gradual transition and first gather experience with our 11 MW array. After a few months of operation we are now certain that we can firm this intermittent production. This will allow us to expand our renewable power production further in the near future.

And a very last point: UM and MSU are very much restricted when it comes to buying cheap green power on the open market. This is because the State of Michigan only allows a small percentage of retail open access when it comes to electricity markets. Many of our peer institutions in other states do not have this constraint.