Action Recap: Here because of our recent protests? The chain-in at the UW Power Plant, the “improv protest theater” at Odegaard, or the die-in at the Board of Regents meeting? No, but want to read about them? Check out Kenneth and Marian’s work in the South Seattle Emerald!
UW commit to approve a plan that decarbonizes 95% of campus by 2035 Improve campus accessibility as part of the decarbonization process, which includes creating accessible pathways wherever we already need to replace underground pipes as part of the energy transition The main thing you should know about the campus plan to decarbonize is that right now it targets full decarbonization by 2050, which is too late. We can cut 95% of emissions by 2035 and we must to avoid the more drastic effects of climate change. To read more about why 2050 is too late go .
Our urgent priority is to pressure UW, through community, professor, and student engagement, to move as quickly as possible on these demands. UW is required by law to submit a decarbonization plan, but without our pressure this plan will include the 2050 date, which is unacceptable.
, and as the Regents prepare to vote on our demands in November 2023, it’s important that we grow even stronger in solidarity.
Student bodies (ASUW + GPSS) vote to endorse our demands (DONE! With unanimous support in ASUW, and rare near-unanimous support in GPSS) Meet with the UW President about our demands (took eight months and over a hundred students protesting outside her office building... but DONE!) UW Sustainability + Facilities, Energy and Operations work towards our demands internally (mostly DONE! they are designing a plan with our deadlines front of mind) UW Board of Regents decides to vote on our demands! (DONE! President Cauce promised her utmost efforts to make this vote happen this November — we’re counting on it.) Major press attention before the Regents vote (mostly DONE! While we want more attention, the Seattle Times, KUOW, Ground Zero Radio, UW Daily, South Seattle Emerald, and more have covered these demands!) UW Faculty Senate endorsement of our demands, before the Regents vote (in progress — target date 11.1.2023) UW Board of Regents votes to move towards a 95% by 2035 decarbonization plan (They vote this November! We need your help to pressure them!)
The passing of a Green Revolving Fund by the UW, which will allow gains from energy efficiency to be re-invested in clean energy or energy efficiency. For more information, contact email@example.com Energy efficiency reforms inside individual departments. Construction of medium-scale renewable energy infrastructure on campus, such as rooftop solar designed by UW Solar and demanded by UW Transportation. Construction of large-scale renewable energy infrastructure on campus, such as canopy solar in the Stadium Parking Lot, and geothermal heat pumps in Lake Washington. Large-scale energy efficiency improvements, through the replacement of the underground networks of centrally heated pipes. Ensuring that this process, which will involve large-scale construction, addresses student demands around accessibility. Working with departments in medicine, research and sciences to begin identifying existing alternatives to reliance on small-scale fossil fuels, such as laboratory gas and medical equipment. (Ongoing) As energy is replaced, or no longer necessary due to efficiency reforms — turn the gas boilers off!
Not related to our scope 1 demands, which our petition is focused on— ICA also works towards the decarbonization of UW Purchasing, including the removal of single-use plastics as also demanded by on-campus orgs such as the Green Greeks and WashPIRG.
UW Office of Planning and Budgeting UW’s Environmental Stewardship Committee UW Facilities, Energy, and Operations Schools and Departments of the University of Washington
The UW likes to discuss its efforts to become a sustainable university. Located around some of the most diverse nature in the country, it plays alongside UW’s oceanography and biology programs to argue that sustainability is just “in the nature” of campus, a slogan used by UW administration. But do the University’s energy sources match their rhetoric? Well, UW doesn’t just source its energy from fossil fuels. UW burns them, right here on campus, and even the administration knows that’s a problem.
Since 1988, the UW Methane Plant has run off LNG, or methane, a liquified form of one of the most potent greenhouse gases on the planet. Though supporters often tout it as “the transition fuel,” in actuality, methane plants heat up the earth in two ways. 1: When methane is burned, CO2 is created, filling the air with a greenhouse gas that the entire world needs to stop putting out, fast. 2: Sometimes methane itself slips, or “leaks.” Methane, described as “natural gas” by industry salespeople, actually traps heat much better than CO2 does. For the first twenty years of methane being in the atmosphere, it traps heat at 80x the Global Warming effect of CO2.
But what does this mean? Why is it so bad? Well, depending on the study, methane emissions have already created 20-33% of the global warming we’ve experienced so far. Between methane emissions and regular CO2 emissions from UW’s Methane Plant, tens of thousands of tons of CO2e, or CO2 equivalent, are being put out every year: and we know that leads to things like drought, stronger natural disasters, and deadlier heat waves. In fact, there have been some attempts to quantify how much damage is being done by plants like the UW’s: the most reputable calculations estimate that emissions from the UW Methane Plant kill anywhere from 20-25 people a year, in excess heat deaths. That’s enough to be one of Washington’s deadliest natural disasters, yearly. Additionally, the plant contributes to fossil fuel air pollution; a leading cause of asthma attacks and a problem killing nearly 4M individuals a year.
What is being done? Under state law, UW faces a number of demands to start reducing its number of carbon emissions, per year. Since UW’s Methane Plant makes up 93% of our direct emissions, acts like the Climate Commitment Act, which will make UW pay $$$ for the damage it’s emissions do, fees are going to start building up to the millions a year. UW is looking at the process to begin a transition away from the plant: but they haven’t proposed a new system without fossil fuels, and it’s been slow-rolled by administration.
In summary: UW’s Methane Plant is dangerous. It’s dangerous for our communities, it’s dangerous for our students, and it’s dangerous in the context of climate change, the phenomenon responsible for WA’s already painful and deadly heat waves. It’s unjust: the communities hurt the most by the Plant’s emissions are not the decision-makers, but those without power, both in our frontline communities and internationally. And we can do something about it: campuses across the country are making the switch away from fossil fuels and towards safe, renewable energy. So why aren’t we? Demand Decarbonization with ICA, and push for a just, sustainable world: one that keeps us and our environments safe.
(the Decarb report from Sustainability)
🏭The UW Methane Plant: LOGISTICS!!
“Eliminating 95% of GHGs by 2035 should be possible for UW. A lot can happen in 12 years — bigger engineering and policy programs than this have been achieved in this timeframe.” — Dr. Jan Whittington, Co-Chair of the UW Faculty Council on Planning and Stewardship, Founding Director of the Urban Infrastructure Lab, Associate Faculty at the Tech Policy Lab, and Faculty Senate leader.
"The United States plans to decarbonize every part of our country's economy and infrastructure by 2050, in 27 years. Surely then, we can decarbonize one university campus in 12 years. If we were really invested in mitigating the climate crisis, we would do it much sooner.” — Climate scientist Dr. Rose Abramoff.
Are you a professor or otherwise climate expert who wants to get in to the weeds? We’re detail folks too! Feel free to read or Amber’s professor-reviewed papers on decarbonizing the University! They’ll have all the logistical details you need.
Once run on coal-fired boilers, the UW Power Plant now runs on Methane: a fossil fuel which was the in the past decade and is predicted to account for 70% of future increase.
Q: What is it used for and why does it represent so much of our fossil footprint?
A: The Methane boilers of the Power Plant are just the first step in a complex network of underground pipes which provide heating and cooling to most of the University campus’ buildings—including the UW Medical Center, where hundreds of lives rely on its function for their survival. The boilers generate steam which is sent through the underground network and used to transfer heat to buildings during the winter. When the weather turns hot, the steam instead collects the heat before recirculating to the power plant’s cooling tower where it dissipates the heat through an artificial waterfall which recreationalists passing by on the Burke Gilman Trail can admire. Because it serves the two most energy intensive sectors of building maintenance, the Methane Plant represents the largest source of our GHGe. The , despite having the potential to be more efficient when compared to individual heating, currently runs into issues with heat regulation. In general, the heat is either on or off. There is little in between.
Q: Are there potential energy replacements?
A: Yes, yes, and yes. Most of what the Methane Plant produces energy for is “low-intensity heat.” This is the “ambient” heating and cooling that keeps our rooms comfortable, especially in peak summer and peak winter. Luckily, can replace this energy easily and much more efficiently. While a methane burner produces ambient heat at what’s called a “below-1” ratio, meaning that for every unit of energy (gas) poured into the boiler, a smaller unit of energy comes out as heat, heat pumps perform at anywhere from a 2-1 ratio to a 5-1 ratio. This is because they use electricity to draw in heat or cooling from the outside atmosphere/ground, rather than directly using that electricity in a boiler. They’re energy efficient, have millions of dollars in subsidies, and as long as they’re powered off clean electricity, require no carbon.
Q: Energy replacements — continued.
A: Ah, yes. I only mentioned one of the handful of potential energy replacements. Heat pumps are great, but several ICA members wrote their final term papers last year on decarbonizing universities, so we’re aware of the multiple other, clean, solutions. For low-intensity heat, energy efficiency reforms (including a steam-hot water conversion) could lower UW’s emissions by 35% or more, something Geothermal lake heat, from Xacuabš, which is sometimes called Lake Washington, is another great potential source which would also reduce heat loads on marine life that is not built for the changing climate. But, some of what the Methane Plant produces energy for is “high-intensity heat.” Whether it’s for labs, cleaning equipment in hospitals, or more, this is stronger than your average intensity that most heat pumps provide. Not to fear, though, there are a bevy of replacements here too. and can reach the temperature necessary for even hard manufacturing. Electric boilers have been used for decades and, since high-intensity heat is a relatively small part of UW’s emissions, wouldn’t make a huge electricity dent on the grid. Solar Heating for Industrial Processes (SHIP) is used in multiple countries and could reach the heat levels needed for UW. High-intensity heat could have energy efficiency work done — overseas hospitals are as much as 10x as efficient as those in the US — and could be replaced by non-heat alternatives such as ozone or liquid sterilizers.
ICA advises against hydrogen (yes, even “green” hydrogen) due to potential health impacts and its extreme inefficiency. We similarly advise against “renewable” natural gas — there’s almost no sustainable capacity for using anything other than waste to generate this gas, and it has the same dangerous health effects as burning “regular” (fracked) methane gas. There may be some place for both of those energies, but they both should be saved for extreme situations in which there are no other feasible solutions! That’s just not where the UW is.
We know UW can hit these goals. The massive UC system is more ambitious , and the UBC system — only 100 miles away, with similar hospital needs to the UW — will be . That’s our timeline, with 100% reductions rather than 95.
Despite this, we’ve still made some “allowances” for UW. We want our goals to be ambitious, but entirely realizable — so in case things go wrong along the way, we’ve set our goal for 95%, not 100%, by 2035.
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The UW Response.
In 2020, the UW Sustainability Department developed an updated (CAP). The CAP sets a few modest goals such as a 45% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 (relative to 2005 levels). (ICA’s current demands: net zero by 2030, and 95% towards “real zero” by 2035, in line with or several of our peer universities.)
In 2021, the UW hired a new director of Facilities, Energy, and Operations, who had previously overseen a transition of a Methane plant to the burning of wood chips at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Although the burning of wood chips can be highly dangerous, and result in air pollution, other parts of the transition were positive, and could be applied here: like using geothermal energy from the warm ground, or the sewer system (which, counterintuitively, isn’t bad for humans or the environment).
That director has since worked with UW Sustainability to develop a strategy that is… an improvement. It sets up a 75% reduction in energy use by 2035, and an 80% reduction in GHGs by the same point. We hope that at least this is funded and accomplished, but 1) UW can do better, and 2) UW must do better, in light of a climate crisis that is already here.
To us, better means: 1: They can move faster. Energy efficiency reforms are predicted to take several years, when many of them can be completed quickly with proper funding and administrative support. (Remember, every additional year of the Methane Plant at current capacity ≈ 21 additional deaths from climate change).
2: They can get cleaner. An 80% reduction in GHGs would still result in a campus emitting nearly 35,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. Sound like a lot? It is; it’s almost half what the entire nation of Kiribati puts out in a year. (So ICA demands full decarbonization by 2040, 95% by 2035, and net zero by 2030.)
3: They can involve student voices. Replacing the Methane Plant system requires replacing the piping system under campus, “transitioning” it from steam to hot water. That will open up lots of opportunities for accessibility reform, something the UW notoriously has issues with. But addressing that will require listening to and being advised by student demands, such as those of the Student Disability Commission.
Decarbonization also requires prioritization.
To get anywhere with this project, UW has to invest hundreds of millions of dollars (though even before you account for the most important of factors, human health, this will pay off). The UW has thus refused to consider taking on debt for this project, the only source of funding for the UBC transition. Given the massive scale of the issue (the Methane Plant alone currently emits more than five island nations combined), the UW must consider every funding option “on the table.”
Outside funding will play a part, though: The Washington Legislature represents a source of potential funding, and so do the Climate Commitment Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and private sources. Administration has informed us that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) alone could fund 75% of this project — and our Energy Director completed his project at UBC without a dollar of IRA funding. Long story short, with student help, the UW can find the money for a project like this. But it won’t act until it considers decarbonization a priority. Decarbonization wasn’t even mentioned in the President’s Yearly Address last September, nor at the UW legislative dinner last October.
It isn’t just getting UW to pick the right solutions, it’s getting them to put this issue at the top of their agenda. Given that climate change is already causing mass drought/famine in Somalia, some of the worst floods Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India have ever seen, and record wildfires/heat waves right in the UW’s backyard, it’s long past time for that prioritization to happen.
And The UW Response — to Our 5/19 Action
On Friday, May 19th, 2023, over a hundred students gathered in Red Square, where one of UW’s largest recent protests began a set of speeches calling the UW out on climate inaction. We marched down to the UW Power Plant, after stopping at the Career Center to discuss the fossil fuel industry’s , and at the Boeing Interdisciplinary Engineering Building to challenge the hold which the Military Industrial Complex has on our University. (That last one — UW’s closest private tie is the . )
At the Power Plant, we read our demands to the UW. It wasn’t the first time — we announced the same demands to UW at a Board of Regents meeting one week before. After reading out the demands, we announced that until our demands were met, students wouldn’t be leaving — we hopped the fence and chained ourselves in to the bolts on the plant. Starting on Friday, we camped out until Tuesday, no leaving the Plant. Yes, that includes overnight, and no, it wasn’t that bad (the Power Plant actually provides some solid white noise for sleeping). We posed no safety threat to ourselves, workers or the Plant, something we were very careful to ensure in planning.
The action, coordinated in solidarity with our teammates like 350 Seattle, United Students Against Sweatshops, Mason County Climate Justice, and Resist US-Led War, got UW’s attention. (After months of attending administrative meetings and asking very, very nicely — finally!)
President Cauce came down to visit on Saturday morning, bringing oranges and seeming open to negotiations. We set negotiations for Monday, and while the President said she wasn’t sure she could promise that our demands would be met, she promised to “try her very best.”
Come Monday, administration was harsher. They said that admin only had room for so many different demands. Students, they said, had prioritized race and mental health, so decarbonization couldn’t be a high priority. We were befuddled — UW’s climate action money would come mostly from the IRA and Climate Commitment Act, giving UW essentially free money that couldn’t be used for other projects! Not to forget: budgets for mental health / racial justice and large-scale construction come from completely different pools, the , and climate change is projected to kill millions of disproportionately BIPOC individuals every year. Fossil fuel air pollution, as well, and ICA organizes in solidarity for collective liberation, and wants racial justice and mental health issues to be at the top of every agenda. That should RAISE climate justice as an issue, not serve as an excuse to delay.
Not all was lost, though. Admin said they had a lot of research to do — we’ve since been told that communication between “upper” administration (such as the President and the Board of Regents) and the “planning” administration had lots of gaps. They promised to have more conversations to learn about the feasibility of our demands — as it turned out, we were ahead of “upper” admin in research and preparation. As they did that research, they also promised to push in every way for a Regents vote on our timeline this coming November (November 2023). Since the Regents control UW’s budget and administrative agenda, that vote is at the top of ICA’s political agenda.
Next, President Cauce offered to co-author a blog with ICA, where we could come together to share our agreements and disagreements about UW’s climate future. Within a week, we received Cauce’s first draft. It was disappointing, but revealing. In her introduction situating the issue, Cauce wrote that “climate change is existential to them,” meaning ICA. Yes, it is, but it is also existential to billions of people, thousands of ecosystems, and thousands of local cultures. The draft followed to downplay the impacts of UW’s Power Plant, which makes UW the second worst-emitting state agency in Washington, by focusing on the green actions and studies of Faculty. Faculty (and students, and staff) at UW, are no doubt powerful leaders in the just transition we need to undergo — this should not be used to “greenwash” the refusal of upper administration to take necessary climate action!
We’re still in conversation with Cauce, and meet consistently with UW’s Energy Transformation task force to study and demand change. Perhaps more powerfully, our action has put us in touch with dozens of new student organizers, connected us to progressive unions, and raised the issue of climate justice here at UW. The time for action is now...