Guest Column: Statement on ISU power plant boiler transition to natural gas and oil


Climate Reality Campus Corps at Iowa State advocates for Iowa State to invest in renewable energy options.

On behalf of the Climate Reality Campus Corps at Iowa State University and concerned alumni, we are publishing a statement regarding the plans to transition the remaining coal-fired boilers on campus to natural gas and oil-fired boilers rather than investing in renewable energy options. As a club focused on urging Iowa State to commit to 100 percent clean energy and divest from fossil fuel accounts, we are concerned about several factors that might not have been taken into account during the initial analysis and decision-making processes.

Natural gas prices are extremely variable due to their dependence on production, weather, exports and legislation, thus posing a high risk for investment. According to a statement in the Ames Tribune, the university is having to hedge against the constantly rising cost of natural gas, which is only projected to stay on its volatile increase primarily due to the foreseeable increase in extreme weather events. Conversely, “renewable investments are stable, cost-effective and attractive, offering consistent and predictable returns while delivering benefits to the wider economy.” Capital investments for natural gas have a strong likelihood of becoming a stranded asset according to a plethora of sources, including The Wall Street Journal and the World Resources Institute, because the construction of these new plants is “in tension with current climate goals” of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C. Therefore, “much of the planned and existing oil and gas infrastructure will have to be abandoned before the end of its life.”

Renewable energy is a more decentralized energy source whose utilization will reduce risk through diversification — a need demonstrated by the devastating derecho storm in 2020 and one that will only grow as the effects of climate change continue to worsen. Adding two more natural gas and oil-fired boilers increases ISU’s vulnerability to changes in natural gas prices and disruption to natural gas supplies.

In contrast, an investment in renewable energy can address the intersectional issues of climate change and the economic struggles prevalent after the COVID-19 pandemic. “Renewable energy is increasingly the cheapest source of new electricity, offering tremendous potential to stimulate the global economy and … must be the backbone of national efforts to restart economies in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak;” an essential point to consider after the recent surge in cases.

The overwhelming evidence supports that investment in renewables is the best for reducing risk, recovering our global economy and bolstering the university’s budget, specifically since, “Market trends for installed wind and solar costs will completely undercut commissioned gas and coal by 2030. By 2024, the renewable energy market is predicted to grow 13 times the size of the 2018 market.”

In addition to natural gas being an unwise long-term investment, the hydraulic fracturing process — also known as fracking — poses major human health concerns. As a top engineering institute, it is fitting that we examine this issue with a ‘cradle to grave’ approach and not limit ourselves to thinking of natural gas simply in terms of how it is used in our power plant on campus.

Drilling, extraction and transportation of this commodity results in methane leakage vented to the atmosphere from the wellhead, pipelines and storage facilities at an estimated amount of 3.6–7.9 percent of the lifetime production of a shale gas well and possibly more, having a greenhouse effect that is 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. “Over a 20-year time period, the greenhouse-gas footprint of shale gas is worse than that for coal or oil,” and “the total greenhouse-gas footprint from shale gas exceeds those of coal at timescales of less than about 50 years.” 

Multiple research studies across the U.S. have proven statistically significant correlation between natural gas drilling and fracking and ground and surface water contamination by various chemicals.” This is deeply concerning, especially because “fracking is exempt from numerous required federal laws.”

Fracking subjects the communities in these areas to disproportionate and unfair exposure to toxic, inorganic constituents such as arsenic, selenium and radionuclides from the flow back wastewater, which pollutes ground and drinking water. Volatile hydrocarbons like benzene, a known cancer-causing toxin, can also be found in the air pollution produced from fracking at levels that exceed acute toxicity standards.

By buying natural gas, Iowa State University is directly supporting the harm this industry is inflicting and is acting as a vehicle to perpetuate the unjust and unethical treatment of these underserved communities that have no control over — and very little protection from — the pollution forced upon them. Is this an industry you truly want to endorse and is it consistent with ISU’s values as an institution?

We ask that the Iowa Board of Regents postpone the construction for the boiler transition anticipated to start January 2022 and continue the discussion for a more equitable solution to cutting the university’s emissions and attaining 100 percent clean energy by 2030. The benefits to renewable infrastructure are overwhelming compared to natural gas from an economic, environmental and social perspective. Renewable energy is a decentralized, sustainable energy source that promotes innovation and is the best next step towards the future that we ought to take. 

At this time, we also ask the Iowa Board of Regents to conduct a third-party analysis outlining a just transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2030, comparing the return on investment for renewables to that of a retrofitted cogeneration natural gas and oil system. The university has considered several options for a transition to natural gas, but to the best of our knowledge and research, and through years of earnest discussions with the directors of utilities and sustainability at Iowa State, we never saw any evidence of genuine exploration of a transition to clean energy options.

The entirety of the campus energy need is supplied using just three boilers in the summer and four in the winter — potentially the three that the university has already transitioned to run on natural gas and oil — meaning the final two are only turned on during extra energy demand. Instead of paying at least $16 million to upgrade two more boilers to an energy source that won’t be used regularly, the university should use those funds towards an innovative investment into clean energy systems like renewable infrastructure and battery storage.

Both natural gas and renewables displace coal, a vital component of a sustainable future, but while renewable infrastructure is an investment into the future, natural gas is a step back towards old mindsets, values and technologies.

So, we ask you: Is Iowa State a university that strives for excellence and sets new precedents, or is it content with settling for mediocrity when it knows there is a better opportunity? Does it continue to uphold the status quo that will undoubtedly cost the university, its students and taxpayers more in the future? Are the university and the Iowa Board of Regents willing to choose short-term convenience over innovation and leadership towards a more resilient, equitable and clean future for all?

Be an example to your students and faculty. Show us how to truly “Innovate at Iowa State.”

Very respectfully for a better Iowa State, 

Climate Reality Campus Corps

Cheyenne Minniss – President and Divest/100% Clean Energy Committee Chair