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Boston University prioritized impact over location in deciding to buy electricity from a South Dakota wind farm.
Boston University has started sourcing all of its electricity from a newly built wind farm in South Dakota, a move intended to maximize the university’s greenhouse gas reductions and hopefully provide a model for how other large institutions can also amplify their climate impact.
The school will buy enough electricity from the Midwestern turbines to cover its annual consumption of 205 million kilowatt-hours. In the process, it will cut carbon emissions by up to three times as much as if the university had chosen to procure renewable energy closer to home.
“We were very deliberate about finding the project with the greatest impact we could find,” said Dennis Carlberg, associate vice president for university sustainability.
The process of bringing the wind farm online began in 2015, when Carlberg first proposed the university look into sourcing renewable energy for its power needs. Then, in 2017, the school produced its first climate action plan, which included a pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040, in part by buying renewable electricity.
Though renewable energy advocates often promote locally sourced power as the best option, the chair of the university’s climate action task force questioned that conventional wisdom.
“He kept asking us why doing a project in New England or nearby was so important,” Carlberg said. “He kept saying we should find a project that will have the greatest impact we can have on global greenhouse gas emissions because the climate doesn’t care where our reductions come from.”
About half of the electricity in New England is generated by burning natural gas, which produces less emissions than coal or oil; another 30% comes from nuclear plants. In other parts of the country, coal is a much bigger part of the mix, sometimes fueling more than half the power. Therefore, a kilowatt-hour of renewable energy generated in these regions keeps more emissions out of the atmosphere than one generated on New England’s much cleaner grid.
The numbers won over the task force, and the university realized it would have to look outside the Northeast to achieve the goal of maximizing emissions reductions.
Planners also wanted to ensure they were helping to create additional renewable resources, so they committed to supporting a new project rather than buying from an existing development or one that was already in the works.
So the university put out a call for bids for either solar or wind projects, focusing on four regions with the most emissions-intensive electricity generation. They received 127 proposals, from which they chose 11 for in-depth analysis. Using data from Carnegie Mellon University, they assessed how many pounds of carbon dioxide emissions would be avoided by each potential project.
The calculations included not just the overall emissions numbers, but also took a nuanced look at when the renewable project would be producing the most power relative to when demand was greatest on the grid. The goal was to choose a development that generated more clean energy when the need for power was greatest, reducing pollution from the dirtiest power plants, which are more likely to operate at times of peak demand.
“We wanted more power generation when the emissions were greatest,” Carlberg said.
The university’s initial numbers were validated by clean energy data nonprofit WattTime and the South Dakota wind project was selected. WattTime’s analysis found that the chosen development would avoid well more than 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions for every megawatt-hour of energy generated, for a total of more than 307 million pounds of reduced emissions each year, an amount equivalent to the carbon dioxide released by more than 30,000 average cars.
Construction started in summer 2019, turbines started spinning in November 2020, and the university began buying its power from the development on Dec. 1.
The wind farm will also be an educational and research tool for university students and faculty. Students from any discipline interested in learning more about wind energy can take an independent study class that will include a week-long trip to visit the wind farm in South Dakota and the turbine production facility in Florida. The first trip had been planned for last year, but was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. The data generated by the installation will also be available to university researchers.
Boston University’s early and consistent focus on maximizing emissions reductions was “groundbreaking,” said Henry Richardson, an analyst at WattTime. He is, however, seeing growing interest in the strategy from corporate and institutional energy buyers.
“We’re saying don’t by default assume that, from an emissions standpoint, you should do it in the area you’re located in,” Richardson said. “If those actors instead bought [energy] in the dirtiest places, the differential in emissions savings would be massive.”
Some advocates of local energy, however, are still skeptical about the approach. Smaller-scale renewable projects built close to the energy buyer can help create jobs and boost the local economy, improve air quality, and, depending on the structure of the project, save money for consumers.
Small installations spread out on the grid can also relieve some of the stress on an aging transmission system, said John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
“We also know from experience that these projects can help to defer expansion on the grid,” he said, noting that these delays can reduce the need for costly system upgrades the consumer would end up paying for.
Farrell believes universities and other large energy buyers should consider the full range of potential benefits when making renewable decisions. They should consider it, he said, part of their “moral calling.”
Carlberg acknowledges the advantages local energy can offer, but argues that each institution needs to set its own priorities. In the case of Boston University, cutting emissions came first.
And Carlberg is eager to share the university’s experience with other large energy buyers considering their renewable energy procurement strategies.
“We need to do everything we can to help everyone else climb their learning curve and get out there and get renewables,” he said. “We can’t do this alone.”