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New Power

News & Features | April 25, 2016

When walking up the final flight of the Tisch Library stairs a few weeks ago, students were greeted by the view of a behemoth steel column rising over Medford. The usually unobstructed space between East and Braker Halls was filled by one of Tufts’ newest construction projects—a power plant—when it reached a large milestone in its construction. Most people have only seen the fenced-off project on their way to the gym or mail services, but with the recent installation of an exhaust column, it’s now hard not to notice the structure rising up out of the hillside, calling attention to a new era of power production at Tufts.

Built by O’Connor Constructors of Canton, Massachusetts, the plant is designed to maximize clean energy output for the campus and is being advertised as a symbol of sustainable energy solutions for universities producing their own power. But this claim has been disputed by some students as a greenwashing strategy employed by Tufts administration.

Randall Preston, the director of the University Energy Project, explained that the new building is classified as a cogeneration power plant. “The plant uses a natural gas engine, similar to a car,” he explained. “Except, the engine is much, much larger and powers a four megawatt generator.”

In addition to producing electricity, the plant will provide steam to heat buildings and cold water for cooling. What boosts the sustainable efficiency of this plant compared to others is its ability to recycle exhaust emissions to repower the heat generator and produce more steam.

“It’s like a tea kettle. While part of the steam evaporates, some of it goes back into the kettle and reheats the water again,” said Ujjayant Chakravorty, Tufts Professor of Resource and Environmental Economics.

Reusing the steam will increase efficiency from 30-35 percent to 60-65 percent. Steam will heat buildings more easily, meaning more effective radiators, and will also help cool buildings in the summer months.

Tufts’ commitment to improving the institution’s energy resources has been made clear with the design of the plant. But some argue that the 46 million dollar project, sourced from a combination of allocated funds and deferred maintenance, is not in fact the best way to reduce the large amounts of energy the university currently wastes. Chakravorty explained some steps that the university could take to benefit from its urban environment. “Walking around campus, I don’t see many solar panels, urban gardens, or other examples of renewable energy possibilities. If the university could provide a public calculation of its energy output, that would be a great example of institutional transparency as well as offering people with ideas, something to work off of.” He also mentioned simple steps Tufts could take to improve classroom conditions, such as updating insulation in aging buildings and installing energy efficient windows around campus.

While pointing out areas to implement solar panels, Chakravorty conceded that constructing a cogeneration plant was probably the best decision if the university was not going to invest in other renovations. He, like Preston, recognized the recycling of steam to be one of the best elements of this construction. Chakravorty also noted that Somerville and Medford are not very hospitable to the amount of land often required to rely solely on emission-free sources, and are better suited for smaller implementations of renewable energy,.

“The university does not have access to the amount of land necessary to power a university via windmills. Zoning laws might even prohibit that possibility at all,” he explained. New England’s notoriously unpredictable weather is also often used as an excuse in constructing mass amounts of solar panels. Reliability was one of the largest components that encouraged the construction of the new plant as well.

“The aging plant had a higher chance of going down, making the campus unlivable. Even if the new plant goes down, heat and power can still be offered to the majority of the campus buildings,” Preston said.

Despite the large cost of the project, the university claims it is taking steps to minimize the money it’s spending. Preston explained that the location along Boston Avenue, right next to the old plant, was crucial. “We did not have to expand gasoline and other lines into to another area since they were right there with the old plant” he said.

He also noted that the university delayed the end-date of the project to March 2017 due to the difficulties of building into the hillside and unexpected weather issues. But Preston said building a new plant still made more sense than refurbishing the current plant, given how old it is. Instead, the current power plant will eventually be demolished and turned into green space.

When speaking to Preston, he claimed that he had experienced little to no pushback from constructing the plant from the community or students. He mentioned that “the university was very cautious to make sure the surrounding community was aware of the project and the planned construction plan. We had no complaints.” While there are no plans at the moment to export any power to Medford or Somerville, the plant is projected to have the ability to do so and take pressure off of the cities’ grids if necessary.

But some students and campus groups have expressed concern over some ethical decisions around the school’s energy solutions. Senior Will Pearl, who is a member of Tufts Climate Action and is familiar with power sustainability, offered his opinion as to why this major investment was not in the university’s best interest. “Building a power plant sounds like Tufts is doing something, yet where the real savings are—they’re actually in efficiency and fixing our facilities. Tufts doesn’t need a newer, bigger, fossil fuel energy plant,” he said. Pearl offered the example of how many dorms are overheated. Students turn to opening the windows for fresh air, which is a waste of heat and, more importantly, the natural gas that is used to produce it. Pearl also pointed to a statistic from the Environmental Defense Fund which found that while the natural gas industry claims it is an environment-saving fuel, the methane it produces damages the atmosphere to a degree that negates any sort of environmental benefits.

Pearl acknowledged there’s no easy solution to power Tufts, but that utilizing renewable energy in some way is completely feasible considering how other schools have implemented greener solutions. He pointed to American University in Washington D.C., which gets half of its electricity from solar power and plans to be carbon neutral by 2020. “Again, this is only electricity, but it’s a place to start,” he said.

In addition to the benefits of investing in renewable energy, Pearl brought up that the natural gas used to power the plant involves the environmentally damaging process of fracking, in which shale bedrock is drilled into to obtain natural gas. The process uses millions of gallons of water and releases polluted fluids afterwards. Issues of droughts, explosions, and even illegal hiring practices to produce natural gas further buttresses the problematic nature of the plant’s power source.

For Pearl and other students across campus, the new power plant seems more like a temporary fix rather than a truly sustainable solution. “We know the answer is in the dollars and cents,” he said. “The commitment to climate and sustainability is only there if it makes Tufts looks good. To me, a new fossil fuel energy plant does not look good. It looks like last century.”