“I think that this is the most audacious plan out there,” says Steve Forrest, co-chair of the U-M President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality.

Created in 2019, the commission was directed by then-president Mark Schlissel to recommend a plan for U-M to reach carbon neutrality–to remove the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that it puts into it.

Its report, which came out last spring, recommended fifty specific steps the university can take to reduce energy use, replace fossil fuels with green sources, and offset unavoidable carbon emissions.

“This is a momentous occasion and there is reason to celebrate,” says Adam Simon, co-chair of Voices for Carbon Neutrality, an organization of alumni and faculty who have been advocating for that goal since 2018.

The plan includes all three campuses in Ann Arbor, plus the satellite campuses in Flint and Dearborn. And it attempts to encompass every source of emissions, from the blue commuter buses to the energy used to grow and deliver the lettuce in students’ salads.

Its timeline is ambitious, too: the university wants to zero-out emissions from purchased power by the end of 2025. “The overarching purpose is to ensure that all of the university’s purchased electricity comes from renewables,” says Drew Horning, special advisor to the U-M president on carbon neutrality.

Purchased power–what the EPA calls “Scope 2” emissions–is actually the easiest to address. Though the commission estimated that green electricity will cost about 10 percent more than energy from fossil fuels, producing it can be outsourced. Horning hopes to get the first “request for proposals” (RFP) out this month, inviting suppliers to submit plans and prices.

The hardest will be Scope 3–emissions for which the university is indirectly responsible, from the gas burned by commuting employees to the energy required to produce goods purchased from outside sources. Those are so complex and difficult to quantify that there won’t even be a plan to address them until 2025.

Scope 1–greenhouse gas emissions produced directly by the university–are easier to identify, but addressing them will still be a monumental task. The university’s tallest building is not Burton Tower–it’s the 250-foot-tall north smokestack of the central power plant on Huron.

Originally fueled by coal and converted to natural gas in 1963, the plant is a testament to the university’s hunger for ‘energy–and it’s not going away anytime soon. The target date for eliminating Scope 1 emissions is 2040.

“The fastest way to go carbon neutral would be to shut the university down, and that’s not an option,” explains commission co-chair Jennifer Haverkamp. “We have research going on and we can’t just shut our buildings down and send everybody home while we actually work on our buildings to shift this transition from natural gas.”

To turn U-M’s goals into reality, major infrastructure changes will be needed. Says Forrest, “We’re transforming the entire campus … with the largest geo-‘exchange project, perhaps in the world.”

The university has dabbled in green energy for decades. “I’ve been involved in energy research since the 1980s,” says Forrest. He took part in planning the photovoltaic installations by the art school on North Campus and at the North Campus Research Complex on Plymouth Rd. “I thought that was a great step,” Forrest says.

The university’s first explicit ‘carbon-reduction target was set in 2011 by then-president Mary Sue Coleman (who is back as interim president after the January firing of Mark Schlissel-see p. 11). Her initiative called for reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 25 percent by 2025, from the equivalent of almost 700 million metric tons per year to just over 500.

According to the Office of Sustainability, the U-M is already within 1 percent of that goal. “We’ll probably hit it this year, four years ahead of schedule,” Forrest says.

One breakthrough came in 2019, when the university agreed to purchase about 200 million kilowatt hours of wind energy a year from three planned DTE wind parks. When the parks began operating last April, the University Record reported, they were projected to provide about half of the purchased electricity for the Ann Arbor campuses, reducing “U-M greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.”

Paradoxically, the other big reduction last year came from expanding the central power plant. Environmentalists are fighting new fossil-fuel plants because they want to move to green energy as fast as possible. However, when the 15-megawatt natural gas turbine began spinning last summer, the Record wrote, it replaced “utility-generated, coal-based purchased electricity”–and so cut greenhouse gas emissions by another 40,000 metric tons per year.

And that’s not even its most important function. According to Horning, “it’s primarily a heat-producing plant.”

On LinkedIn.com Horning writes that he’s been “catalyzing collaborative sustainability solutions at the University of Michigan for two decades.” He works for Haverkamp at the Graham Sustainability Institute, and commutes to its State St. office by bicycle. He’s no fan of fossil fuels.

But steam from the power plant’s boilers, he explains, “feeds, through underground tunnels, most of the Central Campus buildings.” It provides them with heat, hot water, and “a lot of processed steam for other purposes. And then the electricity is … almost like a free byproduct.”

While the steam is irreplaceable at the moment, the long-term goal, the commission noted, is to convert the “U-M’s heating and cooling infrastructure from natural gas-fueled systems to medium temperature hot water systems that are powered by carbon-free sources (e.g., renewable electricity).” But geothermal will be the single most important step toward net-zero. It will also be the costliest.

The estimated price of Coleman’s 2011 initiative–which also included waste-‘reduction efforts and solar ‘installations–was $14 million. In its report, the commission estimated that the new “thermal systems” alone will cost $2.3 billion, plus $1 billion more for solar installations and building changes.

That commitment represents a 200-fold increase over a single decade. What changed?

“I think the urgency of the issue became more apparent,” Forrest says.

The decision to aim for carbon neutrality “was really sort of organic, in the sense that students wanted this to happen, faculty wanted this to happen, the world wanted it to happen,” Forrest says. The fact that the university was willing to invest substantial resources in the commission’s work–“with consultants and everything else,” he says–“shows a strong dedication and will to go to carbon neutrality.

“This is going to happen. It has to happen because we have no alternative.”

According to the commission’s report, the geothermal system will require drilling thousands of 600-foot-deep boreholes. Those will be connected in loops and filled with fluid. When it’s pumped through the loops, the fluid emerges at the temperature of the subsoil. Heat exchangers can extract heat in the winter or add it in the summer before the liquid is pumped underground to be cooled or warmed again.

Compared to heating and cooling outdoor air, geothermal can keep a building comfortable using half as much energy as conventional heating and air conditioning systems. But installing geothermal on the U-M’s densely packed central campus would be a huge challenge.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure underground that’s already in place … that would need to be modified,” Horning explains. But, he adds, “by the time we get [to that stage], there may be new technologies that give us other options,” including carbon capture and storage and fuel switching.

“Right now, there are lots of efforts to generate green hydrogen from solar energy and electrolysis to turn sunlight and water into hydrogen, which can be a substitute for natural gas and is emission free,” Horning explains. “So there are other potential ways that the power plant can continue to operate.

“We are going to move out on the path of geothermal,” he says, “and investigate all other options that are available.”

The first geothermal preparations are already underway on North Campus. “They’ve done the test drills,” Horning says. “Everything worked out from a technical standpoint,” so the next step is to refine the cost estimates. If the regents approve, the first system will heat and cool the just-‘approved Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building, which will rise next to the Dow Engineering Building on Hayward.

As Forrest says, the plan is audacious. According to the commission’s report, Ball State University currently has the largest operational geothermal district system in the United States, containing 3,600 boreholes. The North Campus system alone will have 4,600–and there could eventually be 20,000 in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Flint.

The report acknowledges that drilling the wells will be disruptive–and that’s just the start. Commission member Camilo Serna, Vice President of Rates & Regulatory Affairs at FirstEnergy, points out that the switch to geothermal will also require changing the air, water, and heat circulation systems in most buildings. “That means you need to be shutting down buildings to do all the replacement, or tearing down walls to install new duct systems in many areas,” Serna says.

They’re starting on North Campus because there’s more undeveloped land to drill on. The Flint and Dearborn campuses, also comparatively new and spread out, will likely be next. The entire timeline extends well into the 2030s.

By comparison, turning purchased power green can happen almost overnight. “The goal is to get an RFP out very soon,” says Horning, so that they’ll have proposals back “by the end of the semester, and then in review by the summertime.

“Typically these projects take about two years from the time you give your go-ahead and get the contract signed until the time they’re up and running,” Horning says. If they get “an agreement in place with some provider or multiple providers by the end of the summer,” they can hit the 100-percent-renewable goal by the end of 2025.

“I think we’ll get a lot of interest,” Horning says. “I think we’re confident that we can make that happen.”

Meanwhile, they’re gearing up projects all over campus, including four electric buses that will arrive during the next school year. And $5 million worth of energy efficiency projects have already been approved, including LED lighting projects in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Flint, and HVAC upgrades at University Hospital.

It’s the start of what will eventually be a $25 million “revolving energy fund.” As each project is completed, the energy cost savings will flow back to the fund for the next round of investment.

The student Climate Action Group, like the Voices for Carbon Neutrality, is glad to see the university moving on carbon reduction. But a representative for the group, Sasha Bishop, believes the current timeframe is not ambitious enough.

“Young people see climate change as a sort of existential and very urgent threat,” Bishop says, “and recognize the timeline on which action really needs to happen.”

American University in Washington, D.C., announced that it had achieved carbon neutrality in 2018. Tacy Lambiase, the university’s sustainability manager, says that they required all new buildings to meet the LEED “Gold” standard, installed more efficient lighting and HVAC systems in existing ones, and tore up walkways and the main quadrangle to replace heating and cooling pipes.

“It was extremely disruptive to campus life,” Lambiase says, but “there are always trade-offs when it comes to ‘sustainability-oriented projects–or any kind of capital project–on campus.”

They did peer-to-peer outreach on saving energy and diverting waste from landfills, provided incentives for public transportation, put up solar panels on campus, and partnered with George Washington University in D.C., and George Washington University Hospital to build three large solar farms in North Carolina. They also purchased carbon offsets.

American University, though, has only about 14,000 students. The U-M has 50,000 at Ann Arbor alone, and another 15,000 at Dearborn and Flint. It also “has an integrated health system which is a huge carbon emitter,” Forrest points out. “An emergency room operating theater takes a lot of energy, let me tell you.”

“I don’t know of another institution with ambitious carbon neutrality goals that includes a medical system in their goals,” Haverkamp says. “Some of the schools that have ambitious goals don’t have hospital systems or left them out of the carbon footprint, so I think that’s a real challenge that we’ve taken on.”

Haverkamp says sustainable alternatives like geothermal can reduce the energy needed to heat and cool the medical system. But she points out that a lot of medical equipment can only be used once for sanitation reasons, making it difficult to limit those Scope 3 emissions.

“I believe the Ann Arbor campus is the largest-by-area campus in America, and maybe one of the very largest in the world,” Forrest says.

“Smaller places have it much easier, because their problem is not at the same scale. And of course they can’t … learn how to scale things the way the University of Michigan can.

“So if we can do this, small cities and even large cities around the world can learn from our experience, and vice versa.”

One thing they’ll be watching is the cost. “There are really large price tags associated with shifting from a natural gas infrastructure on campus to a geothermal medium temperature hot water system,” Haverkamp says.

While the commission ballparked the cost of the work at about $3.4 billion, it didn’t look at where the money would come from. “To me, this was tremendously shortsighted,” says Simon of Voices for Carbon Neutrality. He doesn’t want to see the burden fall on students through higher tuition.

“I’m sure discussion is going on about sourcing the funds,” Horning says. Bond issues, fundraising, and federal and state infrastructure spending could all play a part. “We’re just gonna have to figure out a way to get this important work done while delivering world-class education and research at an affordable price for the students,” Horning says.

Though the commission was created by Schlissel, Forrest is confident that the commitment will survive his departure. “We put in our report that [any] decision on hiring university leaders should be based on their commitment to this process.

“Everybody plays a role,” he says. “I know that people feel like, ‘Well what can I do?’

“Well, you can do what you can do. Everything counts, every carbon dioxide molecule that gets emitted by any method, by any means is adding to the whole, so we all have our work cut out for us.

“We all have to understand this. We all have to act on it and not just assume it’s somebody else’s problem.”