Transfer of Power

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If you walk down Prospect Street at dusk and look west past Grove Street Cemetery, you’ll see large clouds of steam, backlit by the orange sun, billowing from two exhaust stacks sheathed in a gothic façade. When I first noticed these plumes during my first year, I thought a building was burning far in the distance. In a sense, that’s exactly what’s going on: the clouds emanate from Yale’s Central Power Plant (CPP), one of three university-operated plants, which provides electricity, heat, and cooling to Yale facilities through the combustion of natural gas.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding Yale’s complicity in climate destruction centers around the university endowment’s investments in fossil fuel companies. For years, activist groups across campus and New Haven such as Fossil Free Yale, the Endowment Justice Coalition, and Yale Forward have been fighting for Yale to divest from these corporations. These efforts are immensely important, since Yale’s investments serve as powerful signals for global market trends and policy decisions. Just last week, after much public pressure and long delays, the Yale Corporation approved a set of environmental ethics criteria to be applied to endowment investments. By June, Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) will produce a list of companies deemed ineligible for investment, and the university’s portfolio will be adjusted accordingly, hopefully with urgency.

However, in addition to decisions about whether large extractive fossil fuel companies will continue to receive Yale’s dollar to mortgage the climate for profit, several infrastructure decisions right at home in New Haven are impacting the environment as well. To this end, Yale’s energy generation equipment is due for an overhaul. The university needs to act radically in converting its energy systems to renewables in order to mitigate its own emissions. 

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In 1918, Yale opened the aptly-named Central Power Plant (CPP)—located kitty-corner to the Law Library—with the goal of consolidating disparate power production sources from across the university to provide centralized heating and lighting to campus facilities. Built in the same neo-Gothic form as the surrounding campus buildings, such as Yale Law School and Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the appearance of the plant is somewhat of an idiosyncrasy: the emergence of its architectural style predates the invention of steam-driven power generation by over seven hundred years. But no matter how much Yale’s campus is intended to evoke feelings of a bygone era of intellect and grandeur, we should be quick to realize that the world can no longer be treated as it was in some indiscriminate past.

Five years after the CPP opened, the Sterling Power Plant (SPP), situated on the School of Medicine’s campus and designed in a much more contemporary style, came online to provide steam, chilled water, and power to Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH) and the medical school.

These two gas-fired plants, along with several smaller power generation devices across campus, serve as the backbone of Yale’s own power grid, which operates in parallel with the local utility, Avangrid, according to an email from Director of Facilities Samuel Olmstead. This system, known as a microgrid, comes with a host of benefits for the campus. As Olmsted explained, “If there is a loss of grid power, we are capable of islanding the plant and continuing to supply power to the campus.”

Microgrids are an especially popular mode of power generation for large universities. Institutions like Yale typically have research and medical facilities that demand consistent power, and the reliability and control that come with a microgrid are desirable. In fact, according to a white paper published in Microgrid Knowledge, colleges and universities were some of the first institutions to widely implement microgrids. Microgrids also offer better resiliency in the event of a failure, alleviate stress from the local grid by reducing load, and result in less energy loss during transmission. It can also be easier to implement clean energy solutions at a smaller scale, so making upgrades on a microgrid is often more cost effective and efficient.

Despite these benefits, the capability to “island” the campus seems eerily symbolic. It reminded me of New York magazine’s striking cover photo from 2016, which depicted the generator-powered Goldman Sachs building brightly aglow amid a dark rash of Hurricane Sandy-induced blackouts across Lower Manhattan. “It shows also what’s wrong with the country in this moment,” said the photographer Iwan Baan. The Microgrid Knowledge white paper similarly points out that Princeton University’s microgrid “kept the lights on when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast in 2012 even as much of New Jersey remained in the dark.” In February 2021, the University of Texas at Austin’s microgrid, the largest in the nation, continued to generate power as the city was plagued by blackouts from a fatal ice storm. Lights on the campus bell tower were dimmed in solidarity with the city.

Of course, these metaphors of power are easy to point to as the problem. But in reality, they are symptoms of the country’s struggling electric infrastructure, escalating extreme weather, and fragmented utilities, rather than the cause. When the next superstorm hits, an instance like that which occurred at Princeton could certainly happen, but there are more granular impacts of this system, too. Paul Sabin, GH ’92, a professor in the Department of History specializing in U.S. energy history, said he sees total grid collapse as an edge case and is more concerned with the everyday effects of a gas-fired power plant operating in an urban setting, and what that says about the university’s commitment to fossil fuels writ large.

Although Sabin couldn’t rattle off exact emissions data, his concerns about Yale’s power plants still resonated. Discussing the CPP, he noted, “It’s not a very high [exhaust] stack and it’s right in town. So even if it’s a pretty clean facility, it’s emitting particulate matter into the city and the city’s air quality is not great.” Sabin explained that a lot of New Haven’s air quality issues stem from pollutants produced elsewhere that are blown in. Nevertheless, he added that “it is notable to have a fossil fuel-burning power plant in a city that doesn’t have great air quality.”

The plants originally burned coal but have been upgraded on numerous occasions over the years, first to oil and then to natural gas. Today, the technology in both the CPP and SPP is known as co-generation, which, according to Yale Sustainability’s website, involves “[recapturing] the lost heat released during electricity creating [sic] to be used as an additional source of energy.” No matter how advanced the turbines are, though, the plants are still burning fossil fuels, releasing greenhouse gases (GHGs), and warming the planet.

Yes, the plants are technically getting cleaner—in a 2018 Yale staff spotlight, Olmsted glibly points out that “our power plants are very clean with respect to other emitted pollutants beyond greenhouse gas emissions”—but they have had their emissions problems in the past.

A 1992 Yale Daily News (YDN) article reported that the Central Power Plant did not meet contemporary air pollution standards, yet it was allowed to keep operating through a grandfather clause in the emissions regulations. Another plant on campus at the time, the Pierson-Sage Power Plant, built in 1913 with an oil-based generator to power buildings on Science Hill, did not even have an exhaust stack. It was built before environmental legislation required them, thus Yale was permitted to keep the plant running, but, as the author of the YDN article reported, it “could never be built today.”

To put Yale’s private power generation in perspective with emissions throughout New Haven, the CPP and SPP make up two out of the three “Large Facilities [emitting GHG]” in the city, according to the EPA.

I asked Sabin his ideal solution for how the university could transition to clean power. He explained that, barring emergency power and cost considerations, Yale should contract energy production to a solar, wind, or hydroelectric power producer offsite and then import this power.

In fact, over the past several years, Stanford University has switched over to clean power using this exact model. In 2015, they began replacing their gas-fired cogeneration plants with clean energy from solar. Stanford’s first solar facility, operated by a renewable energy company in California’s Central Valley, was brought online in 2017. Construction will soon finish on their second solar facility, bringing the university to 100 percent renewable energy by later this year. And in crucial contrast with how the university used to obtain energy—on the microgrid system that Yale currently uses—the new solar farms tie directly into the state’s grid. Stanford then pulls an equivalent amount of power out of the grid, effectively balancing out the supply and demand.

According to Lindsay Crum, a senior manager at Yale Sustainability, Yale’s current power generation practices are cleaner than that of the power purchased off the wider Connecticut grid. With this logic,the university’s gas-fired co-generation facilities are technically net positive. “The grid is [italics hers] getting cleaner and we are working towards converting our campus to electric-powered heating and cooling to take advantage of that,” Crum wrote in an email. Electrifying heating and cooling is a step forward, but this does nothing to solve the problem that these services rely on electricity that, at the moment, is produced by burning natural gas. This seems like a pretty low baseline, especially from a university with a Master’s program in Environmental Management that ranks third in the country, per CollegeChoice. However, Crum said that later this spring, Yale will announce new climate goals that will address the power plants.

Chris Schweitzer, program director at the New Haven Leon Sister City Project and member of the New Haven Climate Movement, thinks Yale has no excuse in delaying a move towards clean energy. “Yale’s racking up this huge climate debt and doing a huge amount of damage,” he said. “Fossil fuels are the only thing we have to stop on earth. Like that’s it: we don’t stop fossil fuels, then all bets are off, right? Like, game over.” On April 4th, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured at the Mauna Loa observatory, peaked at over 420 parts per million, the highest level in recorded human history and almost a 50 percent increase from pre-industrial levels. “The point isn’t really for me to get into the weeds of the energy thing, Schweitzer added, “The point is, we got to stop. We should have stopped fossil fuel use in 2000.”

“Sure, they’re doing things for energy efficiency to limit [GHG emissions] some, but they don’t really recognize the massive damage we’ve already done.”

Since 2005, Yale has reduced its campus emissions by 43 percent, with three-fifths of this reduction coming in the form of facilities upgrades, while the other remaining cuts were accomplished through the purchase of carbon offsets. It’s a steady decline, but the university should do everything in its power to accelerate this process. In recent years, Yale has constructed certain facilities with sustainability in mind, including a few buildings that have solar arrays on their roofs. The School of the Environment’s Kroon Hall also uses a number of design strategies to improve efficiency, like a geothermal ventilation system, and even received a Platinum rating from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Its new neighbor, the Yale Science Building, sits just a step lower on the podium with a LEED Gold certification. However, critics have called into question the efficacy of LEED buildings in reducing environmental impact. The point system by which certifications are awarded can be gamed through a variety of loopholes: low-hanging fruit, such as the inclusion of bike racks, are often exploited by developers to elevate the rating of the building.

“The fact that they’re doing all this construction continually means they don’t really understand,” Schweitzer said. Even if Yale’s new buildings are truly more sustainable, he is bothered by the university’s amount of new construction altogether. “That’s a massive amount of greenhouse gases in the construction. That should be part of the story,” he said. “Every ton of cement, every ton of steel [is a] huge amount of greenhouse gases.” 

And although Yale does tout renewable energy generation on campus, I can’t help but think it’s mostly for show—the ten dinky wind turbines atop the Becton Center produce about one-one-thousandth the energy of a single CPP turbine, per statistics from Yale Sustainability. Though they were a part of a pedagogical program to incorporate more renewable generation into Yale’s grid, it’s hard to see the Becton turbines as anything more than a publicity stunt, which is the case with almost all building-integrated wind power, according to the website BuildingGreen. This is not a dig on the overall efficiency of wind power, nor is it an argument that Yale should add thousands more turbines to the top of Becton. Rather, put into context with the historic emissions from Yale’s campus and the companies in the endowment portfolio, the ten tiny turbines are nothing more than blatant virtue signaling at worst and depressingly meaningless greenwashing at best.

Just as the Becton turbines have a negligible effect on the overall GHG output of the university, one could argue that, even if Yale were to switch to one hundred percent clean power, it would have a negligible effect on global GHG outputs. It’s a strong argument: we are never going to mitigate climate disaster without massive government-led infrastructure projects, like the Green New Deal. No solution that operates on the scale of a (relatively small) single site will ever be the answer. And no solution that operates under rampant capitalism will either, which makes this entire article feel a bit facile. But if Yale can move away from fossil fuel-based energy—which it definitely can—then why not do it? As long as we recognize that this project is not the solution, there’s no harm in investing in green power, bolstering clean infrastructure, and setting an example for other institutions—something the university has certainly failed to do so far. If anything, replacing the gas-fired turbines is only the bare minimum, which means it would fit nicely into Yale’s lackluster history of climate action.

Cover animation by the author.

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