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Sunday, December 04, 2022

Renewable energy could save UF millions of dollars

A campus energy analysis found a clean alternative to a gas burning plant would save $100 million

Century Tower
Century Tower

A new analysis suggests UF could transition to renewable, cheaper energy and save $100 million, rather than move forward with its current more expensive plan to construct a gas plant. 

The Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmentalist think tank, presented its analysis to a group of climate scientists, retired professors and Matt Williams, UF’s sustainability director, on Wednesday. It found UF can save money by using clean energy to achieve its energy needs while protecting the natural environment.

The Board of Trustees approved a $235 million Central Energy Plant Project in June to build a combined heat and power energy plant on campus. Some faculty, students and environmentalists opposed the plant because it will use methane gas, which is 25 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

The proposed clean energy plan would cost $120 million, over $100 million less than the Central Energy Plan. 

RMI’s analysis found a clean alternative using 105 megawatts of solar power, battery energy storage and energy efficiency improvements could replicate the electric power services the proposed 50 megawatt gas plant would provide. 

UF’s campus is currently reliant on chilled water and steam production to generate energy, sterilize hospital equipment, and provide air conditioning, heating and humidity control. 

The on-campus steam plant will be decommissioned by 2027. UF won’t renew its contract with the steam provider, Duke Energy. The university is looking for new options to produce on-campus energy. 

UF is pursuing a public-private partnership to build the new plant; it rejected offers to construct the new plant from Gainesville Regional Utilities and Duke Energy, two local electric companies.

Mark Helms, UF facilities services assistant vice president, said the university may have a solution that includes a gas fired plant. However, it hasn’t ruled out renewable energy.

The university selected four vendors, Gator Campus Energy, Gator Campus Utility Partners, Gator Energy Services and Swamp Power Partners, to propose a solution.

“These four selected vendors are off in their design studios looking at what the best technology for us would be at this point,” he said.  “I don’t know that they’re going to come back with a gas fired plant. They may come back with renewable energies. That’s what we’re hoping.”

RMI researchers Sarah Toth, a UF graduate, and Charles Teplin shared the analysis, which found the university can achieve desired interior air conditioning and heating comfort levels and meet equipment sterilization needs without steam methods. 

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David Hastings, a climate scientist and retired Eckerd College professor, said RMI’s proposal is fantastic. He believes that renewable energy, specifically solar power in Florida’s climate, is the answer. 

“We live in the Sunshine State,” Hastings said. “We can easily and cheaply generate electricity from the sun, and that’s what we should be using.”

UF’s proposed central energy plant would burn natural gasses like methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to produce electricity and steam, he said. However, it’s not a perfect system and leaks are common. 

“When the methane is leaking out, that’s when it’s such a concern to climate change scientists like myself,” Hastings said. “Because it’s such an important greenhouse gas.” 

He fears the climate crisis will render the plant valueless. In five or so years, this central energy plant will be outdated technology that is polluting the environment, he said.

“That will be a financial kind of noose around UF’s neck,” Hastings said. 

He hopes the university takes a step back and reassesses what the best option is for the climate, economics and educational aspirations. Solar and battery storage is the least expensive option, he said. 

“As an educational institution, what do we want our students to be thinking about?” he said. “I think pedagogically, it’s really important to consider the impact of fossil gas plants at one of the top rated educational institutions in the United States. It’s a contradiction.”

Helms supports the RMI analysis’s focus on renewable ways to produce electricity.

“Unfortunately, we need to produce steam, and that is not terribly easy to do with electricity based on our current systems,” he said. 

However, Wendell Porter, a retired UF engineering professor, said the needs for electricity and steam should be divorced.

The university’s reliance on steam produced from this plant ties it into fossil fuels until the end of time, Porter said. The university should be working to get electricity one way and begin to look at steam efficiencies in another way. 

Porter pointed out the renovations made to the Reitz Student Union. It took an aged system and redid it with better engineering that cut down steam use, he said. He wants the university to do an analysis of steam uses on campus and cut down.

One way to do this is to switch from steam to hot water, which he said the Levin College of Law school is already doing.

“Hot water can still do the job,” Porter said. “It’s not nearly as space efficient as steam is, but it still does the job just fine.”

However, changing piping on campus could cost half a billion dollars or more, which Helms said the university cannot bear.

Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the Central Energy Plant would be a misguided move in the wrong direction. Not only would the construction be costly, but also the gas to run the plant. 

“The cost of solar has dropped 90% in the last decade, and on the other hand, gas prices are through the roof,” she said. 

In 2021, natural gas prices doubled. They are expected to continue rising post-pandemic increase in demand creates supply constraints.

The university needs to modernize outdated buildings by electrifying everything, she said.

“There are so many ways to make the campus more efficient, and then you invest in solar and battery storage,” Glickman said.

Glickman is concerned that going through with the plant would lock UF into decades more of using gas while climate scientists are emphasizing the need for renewable energy, she said. Florida is vulnerable to the effects of climate change as sea levels and temperatures rise and extreme weather becomes more severe.

Helms said this is not necessarily true.

“We are building it with the mindset that energy is rapidly changing,” he said. “We want to build a plant that has enough versatility in that it can change and move with technology, not just build a gas fired plant, and say no, we don’t ever want to do anything else again.”

Contact Lucille Lannigan llannigan@alligator.org. Contact her on Twitter @lucillelannigan. 

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Lucille Lannigan

Lucy is a senior journalism major and the metro editor for The Alligator. She has previously served as a news assistant and the East Gainesville reporter for the metro desk as well as the health and environment reporter on the university desk. When she’s not doing journalism you can find her painting or spending time outside.


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