The Juice

Stanford 1, Harvard 0

Forget fossil-fuel divestment. Harvard could be greener—and save money—by doing what the California university already has.

Stanford University in June, 2011.
Stanford University in June, 2011.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Conny Liegl/Flickr 

Stanford and Harvard have long competed to be the most elite American university. Harvard may lead in longevity (379 years to 130 years) and the number of presidents it’s graduated (8 to 1). But Stanford is kicking Harvard’s butt in one vital area: energy efficiency and emissions reductions.

Harvard students are fighting a so-far unsuccessful battle to get the university to sell off its giant endowment’s holdings in fossil-fuel companies. I have a generally low opinion of these efforts, for two principal reasons. First, as Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust correctly noted, it is absurd to divest stocks of companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell “at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.” Second, divestment is a passive-aggressive act. It would be far more effective for large, wealthy institutions to do something affirmative with their wealth and market power.

For example, Harvard could strike a bigger blow against fossil-fuel companies by installing superefficient heating and cooling equipment and then securing supplies of emissions-free energy to run them. That would hamper demand for coal and natural gas, empower upstart solar companies, and slash emissions massively. It could also save a ton of money.

And that’s exactly what Stanford’s just done.

For the past 30 years, Stanford relied on an on-campus co-generation plant for much of its energy needs. With a capacity of 50 megawatts, the plant burned natural gas to create electricity (which keeps the air conditioners and lights on) and then captured the excess heat generated in the process to make steam, which provided heat and hot water. Overall, the plant supplied 95 percent of the university’s electricity, heating, and cooling needs. But Stanford’s contract for the 30-year plant, operated by a subsidiary of General Electric, was slated to expire in March 2015.

The university knew it was going to have to make a big investment—somewhere between $300 million and $600 million—to replace it. “We looked at 10 different options for energy systems,” says Joseph Stagner, Stanford’s executive director of sustainability and energy management. Instead of replacing its quite efficient plant (think of a Honda accord) with the latest model (a Honda Accord Hybrid), Stanford is opting for the equivalent of a Tesla—a technologically advanced, electricity-powered, low-emissions replacement.

In scrapping the co-generation plant, Stanford will stop burning fossil fuels on campus. “Instead of importing natural gas, we decided to import electricity,” Stagner says. Then it will use that electricity to light, heat, and cool the campus in a very efficient way. When cooling buildings, Stagner says, Stanford found that “three-quarters of the time, we were creating as much waste heat as the campus actually needed for heating.” (For what is cooling if not the mere creation of undesired heat?) So Stanford built a new system that could capture that waste heat, and use it to provide hot water and heat to buildings. It built 22 miles of new piping for hot water to connect its buildings to a central facility, and built a software-powered system of electric heat pumps. The heat-recovery system lets Stanford capture about 57 percent of the waste heat from the chilled-water system. “That will be used to supply 93 percent of both the hot water and the heat used on campus,” Stagner says. (There’s a good video about Stanford’s efforts here.)

When it comes to producing heat and hot water, Stanford’s new plant will be 70 percent more energy efficient than the co-generation facility it is replacing. Now, to run the new plant—and to keep the lights and computers running—the university has to bring in a lot of electricity. But if Stanford were merely to replace the on-campus natural gas–fired generator with off-campus coal-fired generators, any gains on emissions would be muted.

Stanford took a cue from the many large companies that have contracted directly with solar and wind developers for power supplies. It made a deal with Sunpower, under which the university will agree to purchase the output of a huge solar plant (which the company will construct elsewhere in California) for 25 years. (Of course, the electrons that will be produced at the 68-megawatt Stanford Solar Generating Station, far from campus, will go into the grid. So Stanford won’t technically be using the output of the plant.) In addition to building this 68-megawatt plant, Sunpower will also install about five megawatts of solar-generating capacity on rooftops and parking facilities on Stanford’s campus.

Divest Harvard student action in December 2013, Cambridge, Mass.
Divest Harvard student action in December 2013, in Cambridge, Massachussetts

Photo by Camilla Gibson/Divest Harvard

Once completed in 2016, the solar plant will produce about half the electricity used by Stanford. The on-campus solar panels will produce another 3 percent. The rest will come from California’s grid, which gets about 12 percent of its supplies from renewable sources. Add it all up, and Stanford says it will be getting about 65 percent of its energy from renewable sources. These moves—the solar plants and the more efficient on-campus system—will combine to cut the university’s emissions by 68 percent from its current levels. (Here’s the university’s announcement.)

It’s important to note that this isn’t a vanity project for Stanford, even though it does afford the university some bragging rights when it comes to efficiency. Funds for the projects, which cost $483 million, didn’t come from the endowment or donations. “It’s a regular capital investment,” Stagner says. While Sunpower wouldn’t disclose the price Stanford is paying for the electricity, Bill Kelly, a vice president at the company, says “it is competitive with conventional power today.” (The school has locked in its prices for 25 years.) And the university notes that, compared with simply building a new co-generation plant, these efforts “will save Stanford $420 million over 35 years” and “reduce total campus water use by about 15 percent.”

You don’t have to be a rich institution to procure emissions-free energy or to install superefficient heat pumps. Stanford mostly tapped into established business models and off-the-shelf technologies. “Honestly, the most common customers for us are public agencies and public universities,” says Kelly, whose company is also building a 16-megawatt plant at UC–Davis that will provide 14 percent of that campus’s electricity, “One of our biggest customers is school districts in California, for example. They’re investing in solar because it is saving them money.”

All of which should contribute to the sense of inferiority that Harvardians might have vis-à-vis Stanford these days. Harvard’s renewable energy and emissions plans are far less ambitious. The university wants to cut emissions 30 percent from a 2006 baseline by 2016, and pledges to slash them 80 percent by 2050. (Stanford just cut its emissions from 2014 levels by 68 percent.) Harvard pats itself on the back for switching from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas at its generating station. (Stanford is tearing down its old natural gas–burning facility.) The university boasts that “17% of Harvard’s electricity comes from renewable energy sources,” thanks to activities including the purchase of wind power and the installation of solar panels on a few buildings. By 2016, Harvard says it will get 22 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. (By then, of course, Stanford will be at 65 percent—three times better.)

Disgruntled Harvard students and alumni who want to see their institution lead and set a standard for the rest of the country shouldn’t hold sit-ins at the endowment-management office. They should start lobbying the university’s procurement and building-management officials.