No slack for UF and the methane power plant

Central energy facility at Stanford. See any smoke stacks? See any evidence of methane? Data for this facility are here:

Some have objected to my concerns about the new fossil-gas power plant at UF because they feel the administration’s options are financially limited due to the extreme expense of retrofitting the campus to remove dependence on methane to produce steam and chilled water. The new plant is budgeted at $200 million. Secondly, they point out the the new plant could easily be converted to hydrogen, which many erroneously believe is free of fossil emissions.

My objections derive from three omissions:

(1) The announcement and FAQ about the new plant do not mention the fuel source. It is obvious that fracked methane must be the power supply for a combined cycle heat and power plant driven by “a single power source”. Did they think that on one would notice?

(2) There is no reference to considerations of alternatives such as those developed at Stanford. When faced with the same system constraints and economics Stanford at the enormous Palo Alto campus developed innovative engineering and decommissioned reliance on fossil fuels for production of steam and chilled water.

(3) Apparently there has been no consideration of an alternative plan that schedules the progressive retrofit of buildings to remove dependence on steam for cooling and dehumidifying while using progressively less fossil gas until reaching zero emissions.

I don’t buy the argument of fiscal constraints. UF has never in recent years been significantly limited by finances. It has always found the financing to do major projects, and new construction is mostly funded separately out of Tallahassee.

Comparison of CO2eq emissions from grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen with direct burning of fossil fuels. Grey hydrogen is produced by steam reforming of fossil methane. Blue hydrogen is produce with energy from fossil fuels or renewables. Presently it is not produced with renewables. Howarth and Jacobson 2021
DOI: 10.1002/ese3.956.

Hydrogen is not blue, green, or any other color. Right now so-called blue hydrogen is made by burning fossil fuels, especially fossil methane. It is true that when hydrogen is burned for energy it is emissions free. Recent work by Howarth (Cornell) and Jacobson (Stanford) show that it is actually more efficient and produces slightly fewer fossil emissions to simply use methane in the first place. If the hydrogen is produced with renewables, then the story changes. Presently this is not realistic most locations in the US and especially in the southeast.

There is little doubt that we face a crisis of energy security if we are to become fossil emissions free. Across the US industries and utilities have been arrogant and flatfooted. But, there is also no doubt that we can end reliance on fossil fuels and the lights will stay on. As people continue to demand better, these vested interests will have to play catchup. Or, they can spend millions to block equal access to voting and elect legislators who will look the other way as fossil fuels continue to be burned.

Methane concentrations in the global atmosphere stabilized around 2007 and then began to shoot upward. This upward rise was a direct consequence of fracking and associated leakages. There was some debate in the scientific literature about the role of agriculture, and it is true that factors such as meat and rice production did contribute to the rise. But, most of the increase is traceable to the shale gas boom in the US.

At a minimum the UF administration needs to fully explain the process for how this power plant has become the dominant plan. In the FAQ online, UF crows about a 25% reduction in emissions over a 30 year project timeframe. The improvement is hardly an accomplishment given the antiquated system at UF currently being operated by Duke Energy and the long timeline for operation.

Public works in Florida are often corrupt in conception and execution. A recent example is a very unpopular system of toll roads pushed through the legislature by special interests. In absence of UF showing us the maths, it is reasonable to assume that this entire plan was conceived and promoted by special interests and endorsed by political power in Tallahassee. The Florida legislature and the governor have pre-empted local rights with respect to recycling, packaging, and power sources.

Retrofitting UF buildings could obviate the need for fossil fuels to generate steam by implementing hot water and energy storage systems based on renewables similar to the system at Stanford. Heat pumps, electric vehicles, battery storage, and rapidly improving efficiencies of processes and appliances are projected by studies to result in steep decreases in per capita energy demand. Because of demand management and these improvements, within a decade the fossil gas power plant will be a stranded asset that is increasingly expensive to maintain and operate over the next 30 years.

The simple reality is that we must absolutely eliminate without remorse all fossil energy production. We are out of time and out of any conceivably reasonable excuse. It is unconscionable to build yet another power plant fired with fossil fuel. Ultimately I object to the complicity and lack of courage shown by the UF administration.

During my time as a chief executive I got to know many presidents and their institutions. The UF upper administration is not powerless to take a stand for our university and community. Their service should be to the higher mission of public education, not to financial or political interests.

No. I will not cut this administration any slack. I do not feel that the new power plant is being implemented with due consideration for the future of UF students and the community.