Many UC Berkeley students are familiar with the puffs of steam often seen around campus, but may not know of its source — a natural gas plant that currently generates 90% of campus’s energy. But the power plant has less than 10 years of usable life remaining.
For the past several years, campus has been evaluating the idea of transitioning to a cleaner energy source. Focused on replacing the plant and connecting the most energy intensive buildings, campus hopes to complete phase one of the transition by 2028, according to Kira Stoll, campus’s chief sustainability and carbon solutions officer. Stoll, who is on the leadership team for campus’s transition to clean energy, said the overall project has an expected completion timeline of 2030.
“What we’re looking at is pretty exciting if we’re able to execute the plan as we would like to, which is on a very fast track,” Stoll said. “There’s still a lot of pieces that need to come together to make that happen, but we’re working very, very hard on that.”
According to Stoll, 70-75% of campus greenhouse gas emissions come from energy used by campus buildings. She said the most “impactful” actions that campus can take in a short amount of time toward reducing its carbon footprint are decommissioning the cogeneration plant and replacing natural gas with a cleaner energy source.
Around 2013, campus began to consider what such a transition might look like. Instead of replacing the aging operating systems within the same plant, campus decided to invest in new, greener technology.
According to UC Berkeley’s Clean Energy Campus website, the project will replace campus’s natural gas energy source with electric heat pumps. In addition, campus will install new solar panels and make investments in energy efficiency through the implementation of advanced building controls. Fuel cells, as well as geothermal and hydrogen energy, will be used as backup energy sources.
The energy will be stored in new battery and thermal storage facilities, which will be able to draw power from the utility grid in times of peak demand as well as return excess power back to the grid.
“We need to invest in 21st century technology. We’re going to be rebuilding infrastructure that’s going to be around for 50 to 75 years, maybe more,” Stoll said. “In the last two years there’s also been much more of an emphasis on reducing our carbon footprint and doing that rapidly.”
Last spring, as part of the UC system’s request for state funding toward capital improvements, campus’s government and community relations department made the case for green technology to the state. As a result, the state committed $249 million over the course of three fiscal years to the initiative.
This was a “catalyst” for the project; the clean energy campus leadership team is hoping to receive continued funding from the state throughout the next few years as well as funding from private-public partnerships and donors, according to the clean energy campus site.
According to a handout provided by campus director of communications Kyle Gibson, the total cost of the project is expected to be $700 million.
The leadership team has also continued to collaborate with several groups within the state, UC system and campus in order to receive broad engagement for the initiative.
Set up about a year ago, the team created the Clean Energy Advisory Committee where faculty, staff, students and campus leadership have been advising the initiative. The team has also been involved in informal networking with the academic senate and ASUC, and are looking forward to more student involvement.
Stoll noted that students who have been responsive to the climate crisis and wanted campus to act quickly had advocated with the state for funding and had pushed the institution to invest in the initiative.
Besides being a model for other institutions to emulate, Gibson added that the hope is to create a “living learning environment” for students and other institutions to learn from.
“There’s going to be a host of ways that this is going to become a learning opportunity,” Gibson said.
For Stoll and the team, the transition is not just a solution to reducing the campus carbon footprint but a boost to the state economy that provides opportunities for research and learning.
Stoll stated that the initiative will create a multitude of construction jobs, aid movements to train and transition people into the green energy job market and support apprenticeship programs.
“As a public research institution, part of our mission is to both research, teach and make available to the public what we do,” Stoll said. “We’re committed in this project to transparency about how we’re doing this and what lessons we learned along the way and are trying to make that information available in real time to others that are trying to do the same.”