Davis moves toward zero net energy, total carbon neutrality

MERAL BASIT / COURTESY
MERAL BASIT / COURTESY

Campus acts upon energy efficiency and emission goals with help of students, classroom monitoring devices

In 2013, UC President Janet Napolitano announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, requiring all UC campuses to become totally carbon neutral (contribute zero atmospheric carbon to the environment) by the year 2025.

Moving toward this goal of energy efficiency is both an individual and community-wide effort. UC Davis has taken steps toward furthering our campus’ energy efficiency and lowering carbon emissions via energy management and community outreach.

Joshua Morejohn is the energy manager at UC Davis’ Energy Conservation Office (ECO). The department was created in 2013 to organize the campus’ efforts to become more energy efficient by optimizing buildings and fine tuning heating, ventilation and A/C (HVAC) usage by creating programs like TherMOOstat.

TherMOOstat is a data collection app that can be accessed on smartphones and laptops; users can report how they’re feeling by picking a colorfully dressed cow that reflects how warm or cool they feel. So, if the ECO receives a cow-with-earmuffs from a classroom in Wellman, they’ll know to keep the air conditioning off in the future.

“We didn’t even know that people were this uncomfortable until people started giving us feedback,” Morejohn said. “Now we’re trying to integrate [the data] more with how we actually tune the buildings.”

According to Morejohn, the university currently spends 25 million dollars a year on energy, so cutting HVAC costs where possible is of utmost importance. While the ECO is asking their users for feedback, they’ve also kept an eye on campus energy levels, tuning them when necessary.

The ECO monitors each building individually, considering occupancy and class scheduling to determine how to keep people comfortable while using the least amount of energy. Without realizing it, students are sitting in lecture halls that are operating at close to maximum energy efficiency.

With energy and temperature monitors covering 75 percent of the university’s indoor areas, the ECO can track UC Davis’ energy usage in real time. While the ECO uses this data for their own research, they share it with the community through Campus Energy Education Dashboard (CEED), a website established in April.

The data the ECO collects allows department to form a baseline of how much energy, and therefore carbon, the campus is using. Along with monitoring existing energy levels, Morejohn and his team are actively working to find solutions outside of optimizing buildings.

“My office actually sponsors a grad class that’s called Path to Zero Net Energy,” Morejohn said. “The class has six projects and four of them are with my office. A lot of them are around the Carbon Neutrality Initiative”.

A few of the projects in the Zero Net Energy (ZNE) course study the steam to hot water conversion, which Morejohn cited as one of the university’s giant energy pits.

“One of those things that nobody really knows about is that we have steam heating [about 100] buildings on campus. Our steam district heating system has a 30 to 50 percent energy loss in the distribution piping, while the loss on a new hot water district heating system would be only 5 to 10 percent.”

While the ECO is working toward the goal of zero net emissions, they’re not alone. The West Village, a UC Davis affiliated student housing site, holds the title of being the largest planned ZNE community in the United States. As of April 2016, they were able to offset 85 percent of their energy consumption with solar energy. While generating solar energy is one aspect of going ZNE, a large part of it is reducing energy usage to levels the solar panels can compensate for.

        Larissa Lomen is a third year sustainable environmental design major and one of West Village’s green community assistants. Lomen helps West Village residents become more energy efficient in order to bridge the gap between the solar energy they are producing on-site and the energy that people are using.

“So we’re looking at the top twenty highest […] energy users, and we’re emailing them tips,” said Lomen. “We’re telling them, ‘Hey keep your energy usage down, there’s an incentive for you.’ We give out a lot of solar backpacks, shower timers and water bottles.”

        In addition to carbon dioxide emissions, the university has taken steps toward diverting trash from landfills. When landfills pack down trash, they are limiting the oxygen that the waste is exposed to, which often includes biodegradable food scraps. According to a 2014 paper from Princeton University, without oxygen, the waste is broken down anaerobically, which produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is “roughly 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas [than carbon dioxide].”

To divert this waste, the Campus Center for the Environment (CEE), an ASUCD affiliated program, holds vermicomposting workshops that teach people how to use worms to break down their food into compost, which they can use to grow more food. Recent UC Davis graduate Sky Johnson is the Vermicomposting and Workshop Director for the CCE.

“The compost education and action we provide […] gives a really hands-on way for students to go from start to finish,” Johnson said. “They produce this waste and instead of putting it in a bin where they don’t know where it goes, they can understand the whole process. It goes from picking up the compostable waste, actually taking it to the compost pile, getting dirty, and then seeing how that [waste] turns into compost”.

        Composting both reduces greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen runoff. By using compost, industrial agricultural efforts can avoid using nitrogen-heavy synthetic fertilizers that can wash away more easily with rainwater. This runoff can cause harmful algal blooms in lakes and oceans, which can suffocate fish and cause ecological dead zones.

Although individual efforts like composting, turning off the lights, and reporting the temperature of a classroom may seem small in comparison to global climate change, these changes can have a big impact.

        “Climate change doesn’t necessarily have to be a driver for all this. Whether we’re concerned about climate change or not, I feel like being a good steward of campus resources is the main thing,” Morejohn said, “We’re given a great campus and we should take care of it and not waste water or energy or anything else.”