Katherine Watt | There’s a better, cleaner way to power Penn State

I’ve been investigating Penn State’s energy system plans since information about the proposed 12-inch 400 psi Columbia Gas natural gas transmission line through the Highlands residential neighborhood emerged in mid-March.

The public paper trail most recently took me to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Williamsport office in late June.

There’s considerable evidence that fossil-fuel extraction will continue to become less economically and technically feasible over the coming decades and that communities must quickly cut regional greenhouse-gas emissions to address climate change — not simply slow the rate of emissions growth.

Given that evidence, it’s economically and ecologically dangerous for institutions such as Penn State to invest significant capital and employee time in fossil-fuel-dependent distribution and combustion infrastructure.

Penn State Office of Physical Plant staff have made general public claims that they’ve considered alternatives and that none is feasible.

But I don’t trust those assertions in the absence of verifiable data and calculations. The limited data I’ve accessed support the conclusion that Penn State is technically capable of reducing the University Park energy load to eventually enable the closure of the West Campus Steam Plant — meeting and then exceeding the tightening emissions standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by state regulators.

What’s lacking is political leadership from the Penn State’s board of trustees to make that transition to load reduction and renewables happen. So far, the board has interpreted its fiduciary responsibility as substituting one fossil fuel for another.

Among residents who are actively engaged in this issue, the consensus is that Penn State — and the surrounding community, which depends on the university’s long-term viability — would be best served by energy-system planning that begins with comprehensive conservation measures followed by carefully targeted renewable installations.

Conservation and renewables offer the safest, most reliable, cheapest and cleanest long-term energy supply, and the West Campus Steam Plant expansion is a discretionary project, not a necessary one.

There is a public role for us to play in helping OPP staff overcome the technical and political hurdles blocking the path to conservation and rewewables; community engagement isn’t sufficient to steer Penn State onto that path, but it is necessary.

With accurate information about increasingly unreliable, expensive and climate-destabilizing fossil-fuel extraction and distribution systems, the board of trustees would be in a position to direct administrators within the OPP and the new Sustainability Institute to find the most effective sequence of steps to reduce campus energy use and align it with decreasing energy production capacity caused by the aging of campus fossil-fuel infrastructure and the rising cost of fossil fuels, while replacing the declining capacity year to year with renewable systems.

Many will be watching board members’ actions very closely today for evidence that they fully understand our global energy predicament and are serious about meeting the challenge openly and prudently within the sphere of their control: our community.