University of Oregon public forum explores potential transition in campus heating systems to reduce emissions


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Jan 30, 2024

University of Oregon public forum explores potential transition in campus heating systems to reduce emissions

On April 25, the University of Oregon held a public forum addressing four

On April 25, the University of Oregon held a public forum addressing four possible options for transitioning the University's heating systems. Currently, building heat accounts for 72% of the University's total greenhouse gas emissions.

Following a study held by Affiliated Engineering, Inc. engineering firm, the university is currently considering four possible options for the future of campus heating.

The UO Office of Sustainability set a requirement of a minimum 50% reduction in emissions, with a higher ideal goal being an 80% reduction. These four options explore the choices between gas or electric powered heating, and steam or hot water distribution system.

Currently, the heating infrastructure on campus relies on gas powered boilers located at the University's central power plant, which distributes steam through four miles of pipes under campus to heat each of the buildings.

The first option being considered is called "systems as usual." The University would keep its current boiler systems, and keep things operating as they are. As a result, this option is low cost and has no disruption to campus. This option has no significant reduction in emissions.

As the Climate Protection Plan in Oregon advances and implements required reductions in emissions, these systems would have to follow these changes.

Option 2 involves switching the gas boilers to electric boilers. This option would result in the biggest reduction of emissions, passing the 80% goal and has a relatively low initial cost. These electric boilers would, however, require a significant increase in the annual cost to upkeep them, according to the presentation the UO gave at the public forum.

Option 3 would require a more disruptive process of digging up and replacing the four miles of steam tunnels under campus, to transition to a more efficient hot water distribution system. This option would add two heat recovery chillers, which extract heat that is lost when cooling in one area and moves it to a place that needs the heat.

According to the presentation, this system would work both ways, allowing the overall heating and cooling process to be more efficient. This transition would require a high initial cost, but would be relatively low annual cost to maintain, and would result in over 50% emissions reduction.

Option 4 requires the transitions mentioned in option 3, but adds an alternative heat source. This method extracts heat from a nearby water source, meaning the systems use less energy to heat the water that will be distributed across campus. The best option for the water source is undecided as of now, but pulling out warm water, and putting cooler water back into the source is not harmful to sources under consideration like the Willamette River. This option would also reduce emissions by over 80%.

"We truly do not know the implications of a project like this [options 3 and 4], but we know it will be disruptive," Justin Mouledous, ASUO's sustainability policy secretary, said. "Our warming planet is also a disruptive issue; so, a few months of street closure is likely worth the long-term benefits of the Thermal Systems Project."

Brendan Adamczyk of the Climate Justice League and Student Sustainability Center said he and his peers noticed something major missing from the University of Oregon's Climate Action Plans 2.0, which came out in 2018: there was no goal for carbon neutrality.

"One of the things that we pushed for was more studies and efforts into actual things we could do on campus rather than just sort of thinking 20 years in the future, and so this is one of the things," Adamczyk said. "The work that we’re doing now is a result of student advocacy almost five years ago."

The Thermal Systems Task Force, made up of board members, faculty, students, and staff, is analyzing the issue of emissions caused by the heating systems on campus. The task force is set to send the president an official report in the winter of 2024, with Climate Action Plan 3 set to launch in the spring of 2024. The task force's ultimate goal is to recommend a well researched, well supported, and viable plan for the future.

"This isn't something that we have to deal with over a 20 year period, we need to do it now. And if it impacts everybody, well, so be it." 350 Eugene volunteer Jim Neu said. "It's been impacting all these people on especially low income, people of color and economic challenges.

There is currently a survey open for students and the public to offer their opinions on which course they think the University should take moving forward.

There will also be more opportunities for student and public input in the Fall of 2023 through both surveys and forums. The thermal heating systems transition study and survey can be found here.