UC Berkeley’s power plant: At the end of its lifetime

Photo of UC Berkeley Powerplant
Ryan Kendrick/Staff

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Amid UC Berkeley’s eucalyptus grove lies a weary-looking building. Steam billows from its stacks and the sound of churning machinery reverberates across the grove. Its musty windows and black ivy-covered walls signal its part in a bygone era. While it stands out among the rest of Berkeley’s more furnished buildings, most students pass by the nondescript building without a second glance. In fact, many students may not even know what purpose it serves. 

The worn-down building is UC Berkeley’s cogeneration plant, the natural gas-based energy system that powers most of campus. Cogeneration is the dual production of steam and electricity in which the leftover steam from the electricity generation is used to produce heat. For something that powers the number one public university in the world, it’s not very grandiose. When I visited the plant for the first time, I remember thinking to myself, This is what powers 90% of the campus?” It looked like it could barely hold itself together. 

And it turns out that it doesn’t really power campus on its own. In fact, according to Norris Herrington, the manager of the cogeneration plant, campus relies on extra power imported nearly every day from Pacific, Gas and Electric Company, or PG&E, in order to provide for campus’s extra energy needs.

“The real issue is, when the plant was built over 30 years ago, it was large enough to power the campus completely, but the campus energy needs are growing,” Herrington said. “A lot more buildings have been added and the capability of the cogen has not been increased.”

The cogeneration plant has been around for decades. The Central Heating Plant building dates back to the 1930s, and cogeneration capacity was added in 1987. During the time of the plant’s construction, cogeneration was highly favored due to its cost-effectiveness, energy efficiency and reliability. But that was more than 20 years ago. Berkeley’s cogeneration plant, now, at the end of its lifecycle, is plagued with numerous problems. 

The most glaring problem is that the plant is a fossil fuel-based energy system. It relies on natural gas that is purchased from Shell due to cheap prices. The extraction of natural gas itself is controversial as it involves the process of hydraulic fracking, which often results in land degradation and the contamination of water sources. After extraction, the gas is transported to campus through pipelines courtesy of PG&E. This pipeline transportation system can be susceptible to leaks, which can release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. 

Natural gas is a product of coal, and according to UC Berkeley Professor David Romps from the earth and planetary science department, it’s estimated that 150 lbs. of coal are being burned every minute by the power plant. The burning of coal releases carbon dioxide (CO2), a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. In the grand scheme of things, UC Berkeley emits a total of 190,000 metric tons of CO2 every year, and 71% of those emissions are from the power plant. In other words, most of Berkeley’s contributions to global warming are due to its energy system.

According to its STARS Performance Overview, Berkeley has only claimed 2.33 energy points out of the 10 total points available in the energy category. Among all the institutions that were part of the STARS program, Berkeley scored in the lowest quartile for renewable energy and building energy consumption.

Tess Gauthier, a third-year undergraduate who has been advocating for renewable energy since her freshman year at Cal said, “There has never been one institutionalized body(of students) that has worked with this. This project has kind of been passed around over the years and has been working with a very small group of people. But the fall is when a lot of people really got interested in it.”

In the spring of 2019, Gauthier and her friends from Fossil Free California organized a demonstration to raise awareness about the state of Berkeley’s energy system. The protesters donned face masks to allude to the increasing wildfires caused by global warming, and they carried a large banner that read “Plan for a fossil fuel-free future.” According to Gauthier, they even laid out a tarp with 150 lbs. of coal on it to physically portray the amount of coal being burned by the University every minute.

Gauthier’s actions were only the start. This past year, the UC Green New Deal, a movement initiated by UC students to push for the decarbonization of the 9 campuses, has been gaining momentum. In the fall of 2020, the movement launched a UC-wide petition calling for an end to fossil fuel use. The petition was signed by 3,500 UC students and employees. It was also endorsed by unions representing 50,000 UC employees.

UC Berkeley is showing strong engagement with the cause. “UC Berkeley’s Green New Deal is well on its way and working with campus departments and student organizations, while holding town halls to engage students on campus,” said Rohith Moolakatt, co-lead of the UC-wide Green New Deal under Eco-Senator Sarah Bancroft’s office. “Our department is making friends with these other activists across the UC system while leaning on each other for support through similar battles.”

“UC Berkeley’s Green New Deal is well on its way and working with campus departments and student organizations, while holding town halls to engage students on campus.” – Rohith Moolakatt

Because UC Berkeley has the oldest cogeneration plant among any of the UCs, it holds a significant position within the UC Green New Deal. Berkeley’s transition from cogeneration to a renewable energy source can serve as a model for the other UC campuses. 

UC Berkeley has been looking into numerous different options for the replacement of the cogeneration plant since 2015. “We started recognizing that the plant had a finite life both because of its condition and because of our climate goals, we started looking at what we should change too,” said Sally McGarrahan, Berkeley’s Associate Vice Chancellor of facilities services. McGarrahan’s team is deciding between two options that involve part or full electrification of the campus.

A meeting held Dec. 8 by administrative members involved with the energy transition project outlined the two options that are being considered. The first option is a centralized heat pump system also known as Option 11c. This option calls for the replacement of the cogeneration plant with a central electric heat pump plant supplying hot and cold water. The plant would be powered through utility with 100% clean energy. Option 11c is the ideal clean energy system that students such as Gauthier and Moolakatt are advocating for. 

The second option is Option 12, the distributive heat pump system. This system is a partial electrification of campus. It requires the placement of one or two small electric heat pump plants on the north side of campus while still keeping the existing cogeneration plant on the south side. The cogeneration plant is to continue to supply energy to the south side for the short term. It will also remain to provide energy resiliency in the case of emergencies such as power outages. Overall, natural gas use will be reduced by 85% and will eventually be completely phased out as more on-site renewables are added overtime.

While Option 12 is more financially feasible and temporarily takes care of the energy resiliency issue, it’s not the direction that energy leaders, such as professor Daniel Kammen, recommend. Kammen, an expert on energy who has served in both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, commented that any investment in fossil fuels contradicts the 2013 UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative, which committed all the UC campuses to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. His recommendation to campus was “to be as aggressive as we can on moving buildings off of the steam plant and meeting their needs with on-site renewables and energy storage and renewables that we contract from neighboring facilities.”

In short, Option 11c gets UC Berkeley toward the goal of a 100% clean and decarbonized energy system. Option 12 gets us pretty close to the goal but leaves us uncertain with the whens and hows of getting to the finish line. And while we have plans for the new energy systems, we don’t yet have plans for how we’re going to transition to those systems. The timeframes are also not set in stone. McGarrahan stated that the optimistic timeline is to have the new plants in 7 to 8 years. This assumes that campus will be able to obtain funding within the next year and a half.

Of course, there is a multitude of challenges that come with reaching both of these plans. The biggest challenge: finance. As Kammen put it, all of the new energy system considerations are aspirational depending on whether campus can secure funding. And the costs are monstrous. A new clean energy system would lead to an estimated upfront cost between $250-300 million and a starting operational cost of $40-70 million per year. In order to secure this funding, campus would have to reach out to numerous donors and seek state or even federal funding. 

There are also challenges with infrastructure and land to consider. The campus has a “very complex buried infrastructure right now between our high voltage system and our steam system so replacing that with the hot water system is just going to be difficult and long,” according to McGarrahan. McGarrahan also brought up the challenge of replacing campus’s fundamental infrastructure while its energy system continues to operate. It’s important that campus still receives energy so that students, professors and researchers can continue with their daily activities. UC Berkeley faces the tricky task of keeping that energy running when replacing its system. 

Kira Stoll, the chief sustainability and carbon solutions officer of the Office of Sustainability, said a heat pump system also requires the use of more land for the new construction plus large thermal storage tanks. Since Berkeley is located in an urban setting, it already faces land constraints. Option 12 would involve around 45,000 square feet of land while Option 11c would need 51,000 square feet. This means that campus would have to make some land sacrifices and get creative in finding ways to install the energy system with land constraints.

There’s also a priority dilemma. Campus deals with many other important competing interests such as student housing and reconstruction of campus buildings for earthquake safety. The transition to a clean energy system is one of many issues that are on the administration’s mind. “The campus can only take on so much at a time, and they’re all valid,” McGarrahan said. She emphasized that while she believes that a clean energy system is fundamental for the campus, she sympathizes with the people who have to navigate between the competing interests and prioritize one over the others. 

With all of these challenges, the prospect of transitioning into renewable energy seems daunting. But according to Kammen, securing finances for the energy system is quite possible. “We have the most climate progressive president in history who is on the edge of very large investments in clean energy,” he said. “UC Berkeley is rated as one of the top universities in the country in terms of energy research, and so I actually think that we’re in a really good position to go out and get those funds.”

UC Berkeley has also begun looking into several different funding options that involve market-based solutions, hybrid solutions and philanthropic and publicly-sponsored solutions. “There are philanthropists who are interested and there are grant funders who are interested and there is stimulus funding that is possible to help in making this transition,” McGarrahan said.

And while the initial costs are staggering, a clean energy system will save Berkeley a lot of money in the future. Kammen explained that “clean energy technologies are now cheaper than fossil fuels, so the sooner we can transition, the sooner we can take advantage of the lower cost of meeting our energy needs with solar, wind and energy storage.” In the future, we will continue to see renewable energy prices drop and fossil fuel prices increase, so a transition to clean energy will increasingly benefit Berkeley’s economy in the long run.

“Clean energy technologies are now cheaper than fossil fuels, so the sooner we can transition, the sooner we can take advantage of the lower cost of meeting our energy needs with solar, wind and energy storage.” – Daniel Kammen

A quick transition will also make UC Berkeley a leader in clean energy. It will boost Berkeley’s reputation in sustainability and set an example for the rest of the UCs, as well as for other universities. It will strongly demonstrate Berkeley’s commitment to a sustainable future and underscore its role as a leading school. The transition will also open up numerous onsite student research opportunities for those who are interested in clean energy. 

From the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative to both state and federal energy goals, institutions of every level are aiming for a switch to clean energy. The time is opportune for Berkeley to follow through with these goals. Some universities have already pulled ahead with this transition. Take our rival Stanford for example. Stanford has replaced its cogeneration with solar generating plants, which have allowed it to be supplied by entirely clean renewable power by 2021. As mentioned in a Stanford news article, the new energy system “will save Stanford $420 million over 35 years (as compared to a cogeneration option) and will reduce total campus water use by 15 percent.” Like Berkeley, Stanford has also used a cogeneration plant since 1987. And as we all know, UC Berkeley is just as capable of rising to the challenge. 

Campus organizations such as the UC-wide Green New Deal, ASUC Eco-Office and Student Environmental Resource Center all provide opportunities for students to collectively advocate for carbon neutrality. As a leading institution in clean energy research, research opportunities in Berkeley are abundant.

“Between my department, the Energy and Resources Group, and between the Colleges of Engineering and Energy at Haas and researchers in the Agriculture and Resources Economics department, there’s probably more research opportunities in sustainability here than almost anywhere else,” Kammen said.

Contact Jeana Lee at [email protected].

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