Sustainability at UM: Disco Wolf Approved, or Dumpster Fire?

Sustainability at UM, Disco Wolf Approved? Or Dumpster Fire?
By: Daithi Martin
Disco Wolf approves of your interest in sustainability. Brewing Co.

On a brisk fall morning, my classmates and I met with Brian Kerns, the UM facilities engineer, and energy manager, to drink the sustainability Kool-aid become one with the sustainable consciousness. At least I hoped there was something to drink because I was thirsty for knowledge! The question pounding in the back of my head was: Do we really care about sustainability here at UM or was our sustainability plan as ill-informed as our new student recruitment plan? I jest, but suffice to say, the Disco Wolf was pleasantly surprised.
An unassuming figure, Brian was dressed black denim cowboy tuxedo and began by outlining the universities plan to produce more of its own electricity with the calm analytical demeanor of an engineer. It turns out that the university plans to purchase two multi-fuel jet turbines to produce more of its own electricity. To my surprise, it is more cost-effective for the university to generate its own power by burning natural gas than purchasing that electricity directly through our local energy provider, Northwestern Energy. One would normally assume that a large energy company would have economies of scale and therefore be able to produce the electricity more cheaply. As Brian informed us, this is not the case!

The university can produce its own energy more cheaply because we would recapture the excess heat from the combustion and use it to generate more electricity and steam. This would not only be cheaper but also produce less carbon because the bulk of Northwestern Energy’s electricity production comes from coal-fired power plants and these produce more carbon per kilowatt-hour than natural gas combustion. Why doesn’t Northwestern energy use more natural gas you ask? Because coal is cheap and they would rather make cheap easy money than save the planet. Did I just say that out loud? Moving on….
Steam manifold under the new Native American Studies building. Almost beautiful ya?

Back to steam generation, steam is how the university heats all of its buildings. One interesting fact is that to cool the steam and return it to the boiler, the university pumps water from the aquifer. This water cools the steam until it is condensed and then is returned to the aquifer. It is important to note that this water is not in direct contact with the steam. It cools the steam via a heat exchanger that is very similar to the radiator in your car. This means that if
there were any chemicals present in the steam they would not be transported into the aquifer. To transport the steam from the boiler to all of the buildings on campus, a tunnel system was installed belowground. We had the opportunity to go through these tunnels and it was a truly surreal experience reminiscent of a thriller movie. They not only house the steam but also the electricity and internet cables that connect the campus community to the world at large. This is why you do not see any above-ground power cables in the university. Much more aesthetically pleasing! Tunnel systems like these have been proposed in other American urban systems but have yet to gain significant traction, unfortunately. After traversing the mole-like tunnels, we met Eva Rocke who is the UM sustainability coordinator. What does that even mean? Well, let me tell you! To put it in a nutshell, she is responsible for coordinating efforts to reach UM’s carbon neutrality goals. Honestly, I was not
even aware that the university had such goals. In fact, in 2007 George Denison signed the American College & University presidents’ Climate change commitment. (ACUPCC). This is essentially a pledge to become carbon neutral by some specified date. Like most other climate change agreements, cough Paris Climate Agreements cough cough, the ACUPCC is not
binding and caries no consequences if not fulfilled by agreed upon date. While some might see this as a purely symbolic gesture, I see it as a step in the right direction and it is certainly better than nothing. Indeed, the University of Montana has made significant strides towards the goalsv utlined in the ACUPCC. For example, in 2017 the Campus Recreation building, our gym became carbon neutral under the Sustainability, Tracking Assessment, and Rating System(STARS). STARS is a self-reporting framework that measures colleges’ sustainability efforts. This goes beyond carbon neutrality and also encompasses measures of opportunity and diversity such as what demographic groups are receiving high-quality financial aid(low-interest rate federally backed loans, work-study, etc).

Is UM perfect? Certainly not but it is taking steps in the right direction. Did I just hear you ask how you can get involved? I love your initiative! Interested parties may want to look at the Kless Sustainability Fund . This fund is a
student-funded loan and grant program that supports energy and resource conservation projects on campus. Ever wonder what that $5 sustainability fee is? Well, it all goes into this fund. Past projects range from energy-efficient pool covers to composting coffee grounds from the numerous coffee shops around campus. Applications are due in March and revied in early
April. Got an idea to increase sustainability on campus? Don’t be complacent! Write an application and get it done!