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Concerns Raised About Proposed Power Plant on OSU Campus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Concerns Raised About Proposed Power Plant on OSU CampusThe proposed plant as seen from the corner of Herrick Drive and Tharp Street. Rendering by DesignGroup.
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Several local environmental organizations are sounding the alarm and trying to raise awareness about a power plant proposed for the campus of The Ohio State University.

Officially known as the Combined Heat and Power Plant (CHP), the facility would have a capacity of 105.5 megawatts, power that would be generated – for the first decade of its operation, at the very least – through the burning of natural gas. The plant is proposed for a piece of OSU-owned land at the northeast corner of Tharp Street and Herrick Drive, across the street from the OSU Veterinary Hospital and directly south of the Department of Food Science and Technology.

The building that would hold the facility would be about 60 feet tall, with two cooling towers extending an additional 27 feet above the roof.

The site – which currently holds several green houses – was selected for its proximity to both central campus and the proposed west campus “innovation district,” where early plans call for dozens of new mid-rise buildings and apartments for as many as 4,000 residents. The plant would provide electricity and heating to buildings in both areas, utilizing the heat created by the power-producing turbines to make steam (which is in turn used to heat buildings in the winter and to humidify and regulate temperatures in buildings year-round, and for other tasks in labs and medical facilities).

Also planned for the facility is a new chiller plant, which would be used to cool buildings in the immediate area and in west campus.

Climate Disaster or Step Toward a Carbon-Free Future?

OSU characterizes the new plant as a key component of its latest climate action plan. The stated goal of the plan – which it says is bolstered by the $1.1 billion deal with private energy companies that led to the formation of Ohio State Energy Partners in 2017 – is to achieve full carbon neutrality by 2050. The CHP plant would help achieve this goal by making the university’s heating, cooling and electrical infrastructure much more efficient, and by greatly reducing the need for the institution to draw power from a regional energy grid (run by American Electric Power) that relies heavily on coal and older natural gas plants.

OSU estimates that the CHP plant will cut carbon emissions by 35% in the first year of operation, and is betting that the fuel source of the plant can be transitioned in the not-too-distant-future from natural gas to something more environmentally-friendly – either green hydrogen or renewable natural gas.

Neil Waggoner, the Ohio Senior Campaign Representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, is skeptical of both claims. He points out that the 35% emissions reduction claim assumes that, if the plant is not built, OSU would simply continue to draw power from the regional grid, which he calls a “false choice.” A better method, he argues, would be to take into account other efforts OSU could undertake to transition to a more renewable mix.

For example, OSU could sign more power purchase agreements, like it did in 2012 when the university committed to buying 50 megawatts of power annually for 20 years from Blue Creek Wind Farm in northwest Ohio.

“We want to see OSU do more of the things they have already done,” Waggoner says, pointing out that renewable energy options have greatly expanded in Ohio in recent years, with several major new wind and solar plants currently being built or planned in nearby counties. “Why are you building a gas plant…instead of building or buying clean energy, when it’s available nearby?”

“This is a university that has done a lot of the research that has demonstrated how destructive and concerning climate change is for everyone, [with] some of the leading researchers in the world,” Waggoner adds, “and it is making an institutional decision to build a gas plant that will pollute the air and contribute to climate change?” 

Waggoner also makes the point that the technology needed to transition the plant to a cleaner source of fuel does not yet exist, and he worries that a new natural gas plant would actually lock in demand for the fossil fuel for the foreseeable future.

“When you build a plant, that’s a major investment that will be there for decades to come,” he says.

A spokesperson for OSU stresses that the proposed plant “does not replace renewable solar or wind-generated electricity, but rather adds to our sustainable sourcing,” and adds that, “for a more than a decade, Ohio State has been a leader in making its operations continually more sustainable while also striving to keep our energy costs as low as possible and in turn helping to keep our tuition costs affordable.”

Kali Mattingly, of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SERS) at OSU, says that her organization also opposes the proposed plant and has worked to promote a petition against it that was started by the Sierra Club.

She thinks OSU’s climate change efforts are falling short, particularly compared to the investments in local, renewable energy that other entities are making (she cites as examples the University of Dayton and Denison University, as well as Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther’s recent commitment to move the city toward 100% renewable energy).

Mattingly also points out that a new power plant brings the potential for an increase in local air pollution.

“We are concerned that the building and operation of a gas plant will have immediate negative impacts on the surrounding community, including the many students and others living near the proposed site off of Kinnear Road,” she says.

“Columbus is positioning itself to go to 100% clean energy,” adds Waggoner, “Why would you want to build a fracked gas plant in the middle of that city, in the middle of campus, in the middle of a climate crisis?”

(A spokesperson for the city’s Office of Sustainability told Columbus Underground that the City of Columbus is not taking a position on the proposal.)

Environmentalists Split

Not all environmental groups have lined up in opposition to the CHP plant.

Liz Lima, Director of Sustainability for OSU’s Undergraduate Student Government, doesn’t dismiss the issues that the Sierra Club brings up, but says that, “overall the CHP plans is a step in the right direction…[it] fulfills a carbon emission goal [that] Ohio State Sustainability entities established in the previous years.”

And, mostly importantly, according to Lima, “It finally declares Ohio State’s independence from American Electrical Power, which is one of the world’s greatest offenders in terms of carbon emissions…[that’s] a feat to be proud of.”

Another nuanced perspective on the proposal comes from Jason Cervenec, who, as the Education and Outreach Director for the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at OSU, works to explain the center’s research on climate change to the general public. He also led the task force that put out the Columbus Climate Change Action Plan in late 2018.

Cervenec stresses that the Byrd Center is not in the business of analyzing the climate impact of individual power plant proposals.

“Our teams are focused more on monitoring long-term climate trends, looking at impacts, and providing technical expertise on climate adaptation,” he says.

That said, he did provide Columbus Underground with some thoughts on the CHP plant.

“There are concerns about being dependent on extracted natural gas over the long term and we are finding that methane emissions from natural gas extraction in Ohio and Pennsylvania have been higher than anticipated,” he says, adding that “methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

Natural gas extraction in Ohio and Pennsylvania is done through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. An anti-fracking movement has emerged over the last decade that has been working to highlight both environmental and public health concerns with the technique.

Work still needs to be done to develop the technology to “take natural gas out of the picture,” Cervenec adds, but he is encouraged that OSU has presented a plan that strives to move in that direction while also reducing emissions significantly in the short term.

“To limit the impacts of climate change, we need to reduce our carbon emissions as much as possible as quickly as possible, [and] from what I understand, co-gen facilities [like the CHP plant] are a readily available technology that can be deployed and OSU’s central heating/cooling setup might be ideally situated for this,” he says. “Natural gas facilities are also being deployed in tandem with renewables to provide energy when there is not sufficient sunlight or wind.”

Plans Delayed

The Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) had scheduled a hearing to discuss the CHP plant proposal in April. Pending approval, Ohio State Energy Partners was prepared to break ground on the plant in May or June, with an estimated completion date 18 months later.

The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. The OPSB cancelled public meetings in March and only recently put in place a process to conduct hearings online and to start working through the backlog of proposals.

A public hearing on the OSU proposal is now scheduled to take place virtually on June 30, with an adjudicatory hearing scheduled for July 14. The latest information on both meetings is available on the OPSB website.

Sierra Club has intervened in the case, meaning that they oppose the project and will present arguments against it at the adjudicatory hearing.

OSU’s spokesperson says that the university plans to “assess our own proposed timeline for construction” following the hearings, but did not have any more specific information about when work might start on the plant.

It’s also unknown whether Kristina Johnson, who is scheduled to start her tenure as OSU’s 16th president on September 1, will want to weigh in on the proposal. Johnson co-founded a company that builds and operates hydropower plants and served as the Undersecretary of Energy at the Department of Energy, where she spearheaded work on a carbon emissions reduction plan.

Waggoner, of the Sierra Club, has been tracking the proposal since last fall, after OSU filed the initial paper work with the OPSB. Although there was at least one public meeting held about the proposal, he says that no members of the public attended it.

“There’s not a lot of public knowledge about this,” Waggoner says, adding that his experience with other power plant proposals has shown him that “when the public becomes informed that a fracked gas plant is being proposed in their backyard, they are generally not pleased.” 

Mattingly, of the OSU group SERS, says she thinks most students don’t know about the proposal, attributing that at least in part to the cancelling of all in-person meetings and events after the campus was shut down in mid-March.

There may be other reasons for the relative lack of opposition to the proposal, though. One is its size – it is big enough to generate power for OSU buildings but not nearly as large as facilities that are designed to supply the larger power grid (the CHP plant does not show up on maps showing new power plant proposals, which only track larger projects).

Another reason may simply be the complexity of proposal and the lack of a simple answer to the question of whether it is bad for the environment or good.

The difficulty of explaining what exactly the CHP plant is, let alone why people should be opposed to it, is not lost on Waggoner or others fighting against it.

For them though, the basic argument is simple – OSU should not build a brand new power plant in the middle of its campus that relies on a fossil fuel to operate, especially when there are now so many other renewable options available.

But OSU and Ohio State Energy Partners – as well as those in the environmentalist community that are not actively opposing the plant – are not arguing that climate change isn’t happening, or that the CHP plant needs to be built solely for economic reasons despite the harm it will do to the environment. On the contrary, they argue that the plan they have put forward is the most responsible and effective way to steer the university toward a significant reduction in its carbon emissions, both in the near and long term.

“Basically, this is a complex issue as we are in the process of transitioning to renewables,” says Cervenec, of the Byrd Center, adding that it’s important to see the broader context – at least environmentalists no longer need to convince major institutions like OSU that climate change is a huge threat to the future of the planet that requires action. “I’m glad that action is being taken to reduce emissions now and that we are discussing the best use of dollars to reduce emissions rather than having a discussion about whether we should be reducing emissions.” 

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