By Erin Morris, Dave Tschirch, & Chris DeLisle, Contributing Writers
As the sun-kissed faces of new and returning UMF students arrived on campus in late August of 2015, their expectations of seeing the verdant scenery they had grown to love or heard of was met with the realization that the lush life surrounding the Mantor Library and Green had been replaced with large trenches in the ground and mounding piles of dirt and soil.
The aesthetic differences were a result of installing ground source heat pumps that aligned with a Climate Action Plan that the university drafted in 2010; with the goal of reducing the university’s carbon emissions through renewable energy sources. The Carbon Action Plan is the university’s response and plan to fulfill their obligation to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).
This initiative, signed in 2007, commits UMF to, “actively work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to combat human caused climate change, with the ultimate goal of achieving carbon neutrality.” Through a combination of geothermal energy systems and a biomass heating plant, the Sustainable Campus Coalition (SCC) hopes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. The geothermal systems obtain their power from the subsurface ground temperature of the Earth through polyethylene tubing in a series of thermal wells. Therefore lessening the dependency on oil to heat the many buildings and amenities that make up the campus.
In 2015, the university fell just short of reducing carbon emissions by 20 percent of 2010 level when the plan was created. “We haven’t taken a big enough bite to reduce the desired carbon just yet,” says professor and sustainability coordinator Lucas Kellett. “We are in a bit of a trial period so we encourage patience.” Although this process may be slow, UMF already has three energy efficient buildings on campus and had a total carbon emissions level of 10,800 metric tons in 2014 compared to the 12,000 metric tons of carbon emitted annually in many years past.
However, with change comes compromise. “Every energy source has its own drawbacks,” says Kellett. “There needs to be a shift in energy mix; we can’t just look at one option for green energy.” So although no deep-rooted trees and other structures that penetrate the Earth’s surface can be placed where the geothermal pumps are installed, the long-term goals need to remain the primary focus. While oil may be cheaper at the moment, the price is volatile and can experience significant fluctuations year to year. Having an energy source with a fixed cost allows budgetary planning to be made easier for the university and ensures annual financial consistency once the systems are fully in place.
“We must look at the payback and we are more comfortable with geothermal as a start,” said the Director of Facilities Management Jeff McKay. “This is a process to eventually not pay for fossil fuels.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of the steps that have already been taken is that they are just that: steps. “The biomass plant can be expanded, which is even more efficient than the geothermal heating system,” said McKay. He continued, “Solar energy is something we would love to do, but unfortunately Maine legislature isn’t with the times; solar energy is just not there yet.”
There are also drawbacks to solar energy. One issue is the concern of whether or not the old rooftops on campus can withstand the weight of both solar panels and Maine’s mass amounts of snowfall. Therefore, because there are potential pitfalls as well as advantages to any source, having a solid combination of environmentally friendly energy resources should be considered when approaching a plan to combat climate change.
“We are looking at the future and this is one step in a long process of eliminating carbon emissions,” said Kellett. The geothermal systems, along with the biomass heating plant, are what is realistically possible for UMF at this point in time. With improvements to our campus’s carbon emissions already being seen, the future seems promising. Using renewable sources is not an overnight shift, and while other efficient methods such as wind and solar power are researched and explored, it is truly up to the students and staff at UMF to make the decision to try to live a greener lifestyle. With the help and support of one another, we can all contribute to making a more sustainable environment and crafting a brighter future for those to follow.