Two Things We Don’t See: The Mole Club’s Lair and Sustainability

By Austin Schuver

Our kind guide to the underworld was campus utility engineer Brian Kerns, fittingly clad in black denim. He led a small group of UM BRIDGES students into the basement of the Payne Native American Center and past a tangle of water pipes to squeeze into a dark tunnel.

This wasn’t the same University of Montana campus that students and staff see every day, but the cob-webbed subterranean lair of the Mole Club.*

No, it wasn’t a mission to liberate fugitive snakes once destined for dissection in BIO 101. We wanted to see sustainability.

The author hunker-walking through the tunnel the Mole Club used to roam, expressway of energy, heat, and telecommunications under campus. [Credit: Martin Ceja Mejia]

The power, water, and heat we use every day goes largely unseen and un-thought about. The sustainability implications likewise: emissions, mostly invisible; energy efficiency, abstract unless you sit by a drafty window; carbon neutrality, in a report that nobody reads (but all should).

By contrast, this underground tunnel and my sore neck are proof of resources we take for granted. Brian showed us the conduits for electricity, steam, and other energies that surge through the complex system of pipes and wires—unseen under walking paths and in classroom walls. It was a reminder of the extent to which we’re tied into the grid and the Earth.

As Brian noted, in Montana being tied to the grid is not a good thing for the Earth. NorthWestern Energy’s portfolio consists of at least 20% coal—one of the most polluting forms of energy, a leading contributor to climate change. NorthWestern is one of the only utilities in the nation looking to expand its coal ownership.

Although most campus dwellers won’t notice when UM’s ancient 1923 Central Heating Plant is upgraded with three natural gas steam turbines next year, the 33% reduction in campus carbon emissions and around $2 million saved every year—according to Brian—is a big upgrade over purchasing electricity from NorthWestern Energy.

Of course, other parts of campus life also factor into UM’s sustainability. Technical lingo breaks these bits into three “scopes”: scope 1, campus use; scope 2, resources brought to campus from outside; and scope 3, off campus uses like commuting and waste.

It’s so hard to see sustainability because it happens all over, all the time, even off site. The campus’ gas- and water-guzzling lawn care routine: easy to see (scope 1). The emissions from athletics teams’ plane travel: harder to see (scope 3). But each part must be quantified, each system must plan to improve.

While most students don’t know what happens to their $6 sustainability fee, these improvements to solar panels, energy efficiency, or other measures will take UM further on the path to sustainability. (By the way, the projects funded by the fee are published every year, available here.)

As the University of Montana hurdles toward energy efficiency and other sustainability goals, we face a moment of dual responsibilities. First, every student, staff, and faculty member has a responsibility to ask themselves how their work can be more energy and resource efficient. Second, we must take sustainability thinking out of the realm of the mole people and into the open air. We are a campus collective. In all the decisions we make, we can unabashedly emphasize our relationships with each other and the food, energy, and water systems that sustain us.

Those of us living above ground must engage in more of the University’s sustainability efforts while continuing to pressure the higher-ups to stick to their promise and constantly do better. As campus hopefully nears carbon neutrality—a goal once set for this year—the final steps will be the hardest to achieve. For example, those soon-to-be-installed natural gas turbines are but a steppingstone—they need to run on an Earth-friendlier fuel in the future: renewable hydrogen or bio-gas, or another system entirely? Students and staff will be essential to pushing for a cleaner, more efficient campus.

When we talk about sustainability, it’s an abstract term. It’s often tucked away in tunnels and walls, composed of many confusing parts and pieces. But sustainability is everywhere. It’s not just energy, but food, water, commuting, recycling, and lawns. Although many parts are hidden from view, it doesn’t have to stay that way. If it means redesigning practically every system on campus, we need your help. A lot of work remains.

When it comes to sustainability, we shouldn’t act like mole people. Here’s how to get involved.

*The Mole Club of lore was a secret society of students that discovered an entrance into the tunnel system deep in the underbelly of UM campus. The self-named club covered the tunnel walls with Mole Club Rules and milestones of world history such as “1996: Pamela Anderson gets her sixth cover of Playboy.” The Mole Club is now but a memory—facilities painted over the graffiti and sealed all secret entrances—or did they?