How Hot Is Your World?

By Timothy Den Herder-Thomas

I lead Macalester’s participation in the Campus Climate Challenge, a national initiative adopted, as of Wednesday, by 316 colleges across the nation. Starting last year, I began an inventory of Macalester’s carbon emissions from its two biggest- and easiest-to-measure sources, electricity (produced mostly by coal) and heating (oil and gas). Simultaneously, I and a team of other environmental leaders began a series of efforts from dorm conservation to green roofs, biodiesel, and Macalester’s new Clean Energy Revolving Fund – a self-sustaining eco-finance model – to make Mac a leader in confronting the dual crises of climate change and unsustainable energy use. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve evaluated last year’s carbon emissions based on data provided by Facilities Management as compared with years before. I’d like to share some of these insights.

For each month during the 05-06 academic year, Macalester consumed between 1 and 13% (March) less electricity than it did in the same month in 04-05, except December where for some reason, consumption increased dramatically. The average savings was between 3 and 4 % per month. However, during the summer of ‘05, electricity demand was substantially higher than in summer ‘04, so annual electric demand was roughly 1% higher than in 04-05.
Heating demand showed a much more appreciable change: a 15% drop in the total carbon emissions from Macalester’s heating system. With emissions from electricity near constant, this massive drop in heating emissions allowed Macalester’s total carbon emissions (from these two sources) to drop by 5.9%. This is an incredible achievement, considering that a 2% emissions decrease per year is considered acceptable. Carbon emissions from heat and electricity have not been so low since ‘00-‘01. Our energy demand per square foot – a measure that factors in the increasing area of Macalester’s buildings, has not been this low since ‘84-‘85 (the earliest period from which data is available). Asking why, however, is far more interesting.

I’ll focus on heating, the biggest change. While I would love to claim that student efforts produced this massive drop in the demand for heat, the data gives a much more intriguing picture. First, let me make it clear that while its heating demand dropped precipitously, Mac’s bill definitely did not. The heating bill for ‘05-‘06 was the highest in Mac history (since ‘84 and presumably before)—around $715,000. Our bill the year before (‘04-‘05) was $462,000; the next highest heating bill was $507,000 in ‘00-‘01, which the second coldest winter since 1984. Fossil fuel prices are going through the roof. Students are paying the bills.
There are two main reasons why our carbon emissions from heating dropped so precipitously. The first is climate: only two winters since 1984 were warmer than ‘05-‘06, a trend that, while not indicative in itself, shows up as a wide pattern across the world. Second, and even more interesting, is the switch towards natural gas. Mac’s heating system can burn both natural gas — a low-carbon clean fossil fuel — and Fuel Oil #6, a thick, tar-like fuel with much higher carbon content. Over the past several years, Mac has burned primarily fuel oil, since it has tended to be cheaper. In ‘05-‘06, we burned substantially more natural gas. Facilities Manager Mark Dickinson has said he would rather burn natural gas but simply lacks the budget; Facilities is required to buy the cheapest fuel. So why was natural gas suddenly cheaper?
When Hurricane Katrina smashed through New Orleans, it wrecked much of America’s fossil fuel extraction industry. Oil production was hit much harder than natural gas production, so while both fuels became more expensive, oil’s price rose more. Though the global energy economy is extremely complex, Hurricane Katrina at least contributed to Mac’s switch to natural gas, and therefore lower carbon emissions. Now we know that hurricanes are born over warm ocean waters, and that the temperature of the world’s oceans is rising, and that fossil fuels are largely to blame. In addition to all its non-human diversity, the world’s 6.5 billion people are now caught in a cross-fire fueling the coastal cities, intensive agriculture, suburban lifestyles and global economy only by pumping yet more carbon into the atmosphere. Yep, Mac’s in the same fix. So are you.

My point is that we really are connected, that the evidence I can find in Mac’s energy bills can actually demonstrate our global crisis. We better think bigger than just switching Mac’s fuel base; we’ll be stuck in a sinking fossil energy system even if Mac switches its power sources. There’s a world out there. The fossil-fueled halls of global power are shaking, the prices rising, the ice-caps frying, the people dying…
And now, there is a movement. California’s Republican governor just made a deal with the UK over Bush’s head to solve the climate crisis. Investors are pouring funds at renewable energy and efficiency. Communities across the globe are taking steps to democratize the power in their wires and economies.
And here at Macalester, we’re leading. We’ve got the planning, the research, the networks, the projects, the inexhaustible energy and the brilliant ideas. We need a community behind it. So what about you? Think this issue is big now? Wait 10 years, and it will define your future. Better yet, don’t wait—start charting the course right now.