The Challenge of Renewable Energy at IU

Energy is a hot topic these days – and deservedly so. To tackle the intractable problem of climate change, we will have to fully confront our “addiction” to fossil fuels by a two-fold strategy: (1) use less and (2) produce a greater percentage of our energy from renewable sources. Let’s examine some of the trends and issues, starting with the big picture before focusing in on its implications for Indiana University and our sustainability goals.

A recent article in the New York Times titled “U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence” provides a great summary of the recent trends in domestic consumption and production of oil and natural gas. A convergence of two trends – increased domestic production and decreased domestic consumption – have resulted in the U.S. importing only 45 percent of its liquid fuels in 2011 compared to 60 percent in 2005. In fact, the U.S. reduced oil imports from OPEC countries by 20 percent in the last 3 years. Good news, right?

Not so fast. Although there has been a decline in consumption, increases in domestic production may still be troubling from a sustainability standpoint. Natural gas in particular has seen a large increase in the U.S. thanks to the increasingly widespread application of hydraulic fracturing. While environmentally “better” than coal in many ways, natural gas still emits greenhouse gases when burned for heat or electricity generation and poses additional environmental concerns during extraction, such as possible contamination of underground aquifers. What we would really like to see is the rapid domestic development and use of renewable energy like wind, solar, and geothermal.

One of the 20 goals laid out by the Office of Sustainability in its 2020 Vision is to derive 15 percent of our energy from renewable sources.  At Indiana University, this is a particularly challenging sustainability goal for a state dominated by coal. Ninty-seven percent of electricity purchased from Duke Energy in Indiana is generated from coal. Furthermore, IU’s Central Heating Plant has burned primarily coal in the past, although they have been switching to natural gas recently as it becomes cost-competitive with coal.

We are showing some progress in increasing our renewable energy use, however. The Indiana Memorial Union, Briscoe dormitories, and Tulip Tree apartments now have solar photovoltaic panels up and running. And the Office of Sustainability is leading the way with its new location, the E-house, that uses solar and geothermal energy sources with the goal of producing more energy than it uses.

By far the easiest way to reduce our campus’s energy footprint is in improving efficiency and reducing our consumption. Projects aimed at this both improve our sustainability and reduce our costs – a win-win situation. The Energy Challenge, which just started last week, is a prime example. In addition, Qualified Energy Savings Projects are given financing based on demonstration that they pay for themselves by lowering energy costs. Finally, an Integrated Energy Master Plan will be released soon that will provide detailed analyses on the types of cost-effective improvements IU should make in the coming years that will improve energy efficiency on campus.

At the individual level, most of us can reduce our energy consumption in big ways by small changes in our behavior. Turning off lights when leaving a room is an obvious way. But to really make a big impact, fly and drive less (and carpool when you do), hang dry your clothes, and turn up your thermostat in the summer. Unplug your kitchen appliances when not in use and cut your time in front of the TV by 30 minutes a day. Weatherize your house to improve its insulation.

The list goes on. The main point is that reducing reliance on fossil fuels starts at the individual level, which in aggregate affects local and national trends. Let’s start a trend together at IU.

By: Ben Inskeep (Sustainability Metrics, Evaluation & Planning Intern)

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