Solar-on-State Workshop Open to Public; Dahlhausen Response to Wiker Report

PSU Community Solar-on-State Workshop Open to Public (previously invitation-only)

A design and planning workshop is being held at Park Forest Elementary School on Saturday, August 23 (from 9 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.) to initiate the development of community-created PV-generated energy sources in Happy Valley in a way that deeply values the role of all stakeholders in a collaborative and transparent co-creative process so that all stakeholders enthusiastically participate in enriching and improving the unique quality of life in this particular community indefinitely.

Those interested in participating on Aug. 23: please email Prof. Brownson by Tuesday, Aug. 19 to confirm a seat and lunch for the all-day workshop. Attendance is planned for 50 people, and seats will remain until filled.

Matt Dahlhausen Response to 8.13.14 Wiker Report on Columbia Gas Pipeline Controversy

(8.14.14 Dahlhausen Response to Wiker Report)

Alex Wiker and Lara Fowler did an excellent job of gathering perceptions of the West Campus Steam Plant controversy.  While it is unclear whether Penn State energy planning will become truly cooperative and transparent, this report made beginnings of that process much more likely.

I have one correction, and several responses to the report.  My original interview for the report is publicly available here.

First, the correction:

On p. 4 the report states:  “As part of the University’s long-term energy planning, employees at Penn State’s Office of the Physical Plant (OPP) began considering technology solutions for cleaner university heat and power.”

In reviewing energy master plan documents from the 1990s, Katherine Watt found that PSU considered building a 123 MW (megawatt) coal-fired cogeneration plant, to be sited 500 yards south of Atherton Street and 200 yards west of College Avenue. [See Central Energy Plant Task Force Westmoreland Proposal, 1992 (University Archives, Physical Plant Records, Box 25]  which is substantially larger than the existing plant. This belies statements that Penn State was seeking a cleaner plant replacement at that time. [For more context on Nittany Energy Project development process see: 5.21.14 Nittany Energy Project Notes and  5.14.14 UP Nittany Energy Project Document List.]

Penn State is no longer considering such a devastating project because of MACT regulations, but Penn State greenhouse gas emissions charts still project energy growth.  This allows Penn State to claim they are doing excellent at reducing emissions relative to meeting growing energy demand with fossil fuel resources.

But absolute emissions are what matter for climate.  And while absolute emissions have decreased, it is unclear how easy it will be to further reduce emissions after substituting gas for coal if energy use continues to grow.

My responses:

What are the relevant interests?

The report section on the complexity of issues (p.19) repeats a central premise that is important to contest, and has been raised many times by borough residents.  Many major capital projects are not justified in financial terms, but are rather seen as “requirements:” examples include the new football scoreboard, HUB renovations, major office renovations, etc.

If there are financial justifications for these projects, they are vague and dubious – such as “increasing campus desirability” from HUB renovations.

Greenhouse gas emissions reductions and other sustainability projects do not share the same privilege of exclusion from financial scrutiny; emissions reductions are only pursued when they can be justified on energy cost savings alone.  There are rare exceptions when outside funds are available, as was the case with the Morning Star Home, or the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub.

Those who are younger or are concerned about climate change are inclined to see emissions reductions as an institutional requirement, as significant or more significant than other financial expenditures like athletics programs, campus landscaping, even air conditioning in non-essential buildings.  At Penn State now, they aren’t given such priority.

Puzzlingly, there remains no explanation for why Penn State did not install a much more efficient combined heat and power system (CHP) as part of WCSP retrofit, despite numerous public presentations touting the benefits of CHP.  This contradicts perceptions of Penn State as a sustainability leader (p. 37), which people seem to want to believe for the status and identity confirmation such a statement provides, regardless of objective merit.

In fact, when considering sustainability on a broader human scale of hundreds of years and globally, Penn State is most appropriately viewed as a core institution of a very unsustainable society.

When are interests to be met?

The report frames MACT compliance deadlines as “hard” deadlines (p. 13).  This ignores deadlines for emissions reductions, that while continually emphasized as necessary from the scientific community, have not been formalized into law yet because of major obstruction from fossil-fuel and free-market interests.

As with the Sandusky Scandal, this reaffirms the impression that Penn State perceives itself as a cautious, conservative, pragmatic institution, taking action only when demanded by legal or financial requirements, regardless of how morally appalling inaction may be.

It is telling that Penn State prepared years in advance of proposed MACT regulations, but did not do likewise for a greenhouse gas emissions fee that seemed likely in 2009 and has been implemented in many other states.

What perceptions back current energy decisions?

A similar pattern arises in assumptions about mandatoriness of energy reliability.  At Penn State, energy reliability has always been used as part of an a priori premise to justify, expedite, and enforce poor environmental decisions, never as a requirement of a larger energy planning process.  This is because some energy planners at Penn State, and to some degree within the borough, hold the perception that renewable energy systems cannot provide the same degree of reliability as fossil-based systems.  This perception is repeated continuously at energy planning conferences by self-styled energy experts who are overwhelming older, white, male, industry-based, and often executives of fossil-fuel dependent utility companies, as contrasted with younger, more diverse, academic, and community perceptions, which are much more likely to advocate an energy transformation.

Countless other projects internationally and at other campuses in the United States contradict this perception, as do leading resources on energy reliability and sourcing from academia and national labs.

Can these perceptions be challenged?

While the report expresses interest in beginning an energy planning processing, “others view energy planning as an internal process to which outside participants do not have sufficient stake or knowledge to add value to existing practices.” (p. 40).

It’s unlikely that borough or community residents hold this perception, and from personal conversations with the OPP interviewees who were willing to engage, it is likely that this perception is held at the highest levels of OPP decision making.  This minimal “top-down” model of engagement (p. 24-25) is against the spirit of the directive from Penn State President Erickson to

create a culture in which people are not afraid to speak up, management is not compartmentalized, all are expected to demonstrate the highest ethical standards, and the operating philosophy is open, collegial, and collaborative.”

It is also very different from the policy taken by many other universities to make their energy master plan publicly available online. And it is entrenched.  The Penn State energy master plan – key information – remains classified (p. 39).  And the Sustainability Institute does not have any capacity to change institutional direction; it can only “bring people to the table” (p. 29, 48-49).

I doubt there will be productive engagement until this perception changes, likely through personnel changeover.

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