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FEHON: Students can impact Rutgers climate policy

While the climate is indeed changing, Rutgers students can voice their concerns and make their wishes heard through the Climate Task Force. – Photo by Pixnio

Greenhouse gas emissions come from a variety of sources, but by far the largest contributor to emissions is associated with our energy consumption. Globally, the emissions from energy use are over 50 percent and this trend is reflected nationally in a similar way.

But, carbon emissions are not an inherent by-product of energy consumption and are not produced by every source of energy in the United States.  

Actually, approximately 38 percent of New Jersey’s energy is carbon-free, while approximately 63 percent comes from fossil fuels. Notably, that 38 percent is not coming from just one source. Approximately 19.7 percent comes from nuclear energy (yes, carbon-free) and the other 17 percent comes from renewables: 6.6 percent hydropower, 7.3 percent wind, 1.8 percent solar, 1.4 percent biomass and 0.4 percent geothermal.

As for the trends in our state, N.J. Energy Master Plan aims to get New Jersey to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. A large part of that plan is to increase the generation of offshore wind and solar energy, but nuclear energy has always played a huge role.

In 2018, four nuclear reactors powered 42.5 percent of New Jersey’s energy and committed to allocate millions of dollars annually to prevent reactors from shutting down.

As for the city of New Brunswick, it is aiming to achieve 100 percent renewable supply by 2030, and actively supporting residents to make the switch to renewable electricity.

So those are the basics of energy consumption. Now let us get to how energy plays a role in Rutgers climate action (preliminary analysis in the Climate Task Force Preplan Report).

For heating, we get natural gas sent to campus where we have facilities that burn the gas to send heat to our buildings. This process is approximately 56 percent of Rutgers' carbon emissions. That is more than half! 

One thing that makes Rutgers unique is the cogeneration plant. This facility creates electricity from natural gas but creates heat for buildings as a byproduct. Fifteen percent of Rutgers' emissions are from the electricity of the cogeneration plant (which notably still burns fossil fuels).

As for current renewable energy on campus (only electricity), we have solar panels on Livingston campus, providing 60 percent of the campus' power needs.  This amount of energy is approximately a tenth of the amount of electricity the cogeneration plant produces, but of course, at zero emissions!

But what does this energy breakdown mean for the future of Rutgers' climate impact? How can we change up our energy consumption?

For the answer, I talked with Rachael Shwom, an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology and co-chair for the Climate Task Force. 

Should we produce more renewable electricity, as opposed to purchasing from the grid? Shwom said, “You can certainly do more solar over parking lots, but it's limited to how much generation we can get out of that."

Due to limits on space and financing for on-campus renewables like those on Livingston campus, Shwom sees us increasing purchasing renewable energy from the grid as a more likely option for the future.

Shwom said the way we can make our purchased electricity carbon neutral is through “power purchasing agreements."

What you need to know is that there are companies producing renewable energy and we can make an agreement to purchase that electricity at a certain price. Due to this, Shwom sees a carbon-neutral Rutgers as likely having most of its energy coming from the grid, rather than generated on campus. 

This is an example of one likely solution the Climate Task Force has come up with, but it is early in the planning process. Nothing is solidified yet.

What else can we heat buildings with aside from natural gas? How can we make our buildings more efficient? When will we shut down the cogeneration plant? There are lots of topics I cannot cover in this article because there is simply too much to explore! 

The good news is, this is an ongoing learning process at Rutgers. The Climate Task Force has come up with many solutions for Rutgers to be a carbon-neutral University, and it is coming out with a new report later this month to discuss these solutions. With all of this complicated information to present, let us narrow the focus back down to what students can do to contribute to this. 

“I think about all these things that students can be involved in that can be integrated into their educational experience at Rutgers but also their lived experience at Rutgers," Shwom said.

As some suggestions of this, she said, “It could be like you’re trained to help keep a building efficient … crowdsourcing stuff, where you’re noting that things are off, or maybe once a week you walk a building or you walk a campus stretch and collect some data on some things.”

Really though, those are just some ideas she has had about how students can get involved. She wants to hear how students themselves want to be involved. Visit the Climate Task Force's website and attend its town halls to do just that. 

Nolan Fehon is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in marine biology. His column, "Climate Corner," runs alternate Thursdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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