Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from UNL Facilities

Thursday, November 4, 2021
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Graph of UNL Campus Building Energy Source
Graph of UNL Campus Building Energy Source

Kirk Conger has been UNL’s Energy Manager since 2002. He is a Professional Engineer and Certified Energy Manager. Prior to UNL, he served 17 years in the Nebraska Energy Office. He hates wasting stuff.

The Chancellor’s Environment, Sustainability and Resilience Master Plan identifies ten sustainability themes. UNL University Operations’ energy team focuses on the Energy theme, which impacts greenhouse gases emitted directly from our campus or because of our electricity use. Our ultimate goal is to provide a comfortable environment for learning and research which we pursue through three objectives of being reliable and responsive, economical and sustainable.

In a previous blog, we reported how UNL has reduced campus building energy use (per square foot) by 40% over the last 17 years. The Sustainability Plan calls for a continued reduction in the primary energy input to our campus buildings, as well as eliminating fossil fuels from our campus energy mix. By reducing the total energy used in our campus buildings, we reduce the amount that must be supplied by renewable sources.

Today, we look at UNL’s plans to replace fossil fuels with renewables in campus buildings. Emissions goals can be confusing because some campus plans only target electricity. That’s the easy part, as there are many sources of carbon-free electricity. However, Nebraska has an extreme climate that requires a lot of energy to heat and cool buildings and provide the power for a modern research University. Heating is particularly difficult because there are few replacements for natural gas at the scale used by UNL.

Currently, about 33% of our total energy use comes from carbon-free sources, all in the form of renewable electricity. That has increased an average of 5% per year over the last 5 years, so that our electricity is now 74% carbon free. This success is because UNL receives much of its electricity from hydropower. The remainder is provided through the Lincoln Electric System which has itself committed to carbon neutrality by 2040. Expecting that goal is achieved, UNL electricity will be completely carbon-free by 2040.

The Sustainability Plan’s ultimate environmental energy goal is to emit net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is a big challenge given our use of fossil fuels for heating. It will almost certainly require a variety of solutions including a shift to heat-pump-based HVAC using renewable electricity and direct use of solar and wind resources. We are also exploring development of both shallow and deep geothermal resources and there may be potential for hydrogen, biogas or renewable natural gas.

We have a short-term goal of implementing several high-visibility renewable energy projects in the next few years. We are exploring several small demonstrations such as solar- and wind-powered charging stations, as well as a large on-campus photovoltaic production facility.

A near-term next step is formation of a Carbon Commitment Task Force, an advisory group which will help clarify and prioritize some of these goals as well as revise the Campus Energy Management Plan.