Higher Ed Partnerships with Energy Co’s Lock in Decades of High Emissions, Greenwash

Amidst a growing trend for U.S. higher education institutions to reduce their carbon footprint, some institutions are looking to Public-Private Partnerships (P3) to retool energy infrastructure. There’s one big problem, however: the institutions are partnering with energy companies to ramp up use of natural gas and biomass, locking in dirty energy commitments for decades.

The University of Iowa recently contracted with Engie North America to provide its campus energy needs and management for the next 50 years. Engie and their financial partner Meridiam, agreed to pay U-Iowa $1.165 billion for their energy management deal. Under heavy public scrutiny, 21.5% of the financing deal came from “confidential” investment sources, which the university refused to disclose.

U-Iowa will pay Engie $35 million a year for their services, plus the cost of fuel, capital improvements and any additional campus electricity charges by others. Engie promised to upgrade the campus boilers, “One of its first priorities would be to convert a boiler at the university to operate on local biomass fuel.” Meridiam, the money partner, has a history of financing biomass projects.

Similarly, in 2017, Ohio State University received a $1.015 billion upfront payment to sign a 50-year energy and facilities management contract with Engie North America. OSU will pay Engie $45 million a year to operate its campus energy needs and “Ohio State will continue to buy electricity, natural gas and other energy sources directly from providers.” According to Engie’s partnership video, “A new gas-fired cogeneration facility could be part of the university’s energy future in the next several years.” A strong part of Engie’s pitch to OSU was their expertise and control of North America’s “low-carbon” natural gas market.

The P3 partnerships with OSU and U-Iowa are a profitable pay-to-pollute scheme for the provider. In this case, Engie gets a 50-year lifeline to oversee more dirty energy from biomass and natural gas. In turn, the institutions love the huge cash infusion, making them less critical of these so-called “low-carbon” schemes. Engie likes to portray itself as a green energy provider, but its recent $8.6 billion acquisition of Brazil’s TAG natural gas pipeline solidifies a profitable future tied to the fossil fuel industry. In addition, Engie is a signatory in the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which widely supports replacing coal with biomass and fracked gas. Both Engie and Meridiam are actively recruiting more institutional P3 partnerships for “campus infrastructure services.”

The false “carbon neutral” argument is why institutions and P3 providers will likely push for more campus-wide biomass energy. There are already more than twenty higher education institutions that burn biomass for campus heat and energy, including Harvard University, Colorado State University, Colby College, University of Idaho, Middlebury College, University of Maine, and Michigan Technological University.

These institutions unfortunately often defend their decisions to burn wood for energy by perpetuating biomass-industry talking points that biomass has “zero” emissions. We’ve written extensively on the actual forest and carbon impacts of bioenergy, including publishing a study that demonstrates that power plants burning residues-derived chips and wood pellets remain a net source of carbon pollution in the coming decades just when it is most urgent to reduce emissions. We assume smart students and faculty can see past this greenwash, but in many cases the awareness comes too late, after big infrastructure investments have been made.

Although natural gas produces less CO2 emissions than coal or fuel oil, the fugitive methane emissions from extracting, storing and shipping natural gas makes it far worse for the climate. Institutions that convert their campus energy from oil or coal to natural gas claim they are reducing their carbon emissions, but usually don’t acknowledge that related methane emissions essentially negate any carbon reductions. The Guardian recently reported that Earth systems scientist Dr. Robert Howarth discovered that fracking for natural gas was causing a noticeable spike in methane emissions. “This recent increase in methane is massive. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen and shale gas is a major player,” Dr. Howarth said. Similarly, the New York Times recently reported startling visual evidence of six “super emitters” spewing massive methane emissions from fracking sites in Texas.

American institutions are actively recruiting P3 partnership bids for their campus energy needs, which will most certainly increase the use of biomass and natural gas fuel. For instance, Dartmouth College is looking at a massive projected $200 million upgrade to its campus heating with wood chips and shopping for a qualified P3 energy manager. Similarly, California State University, Fresno is seeking a P3 partner for replacing and operating their $130 million Central Utility Plant. Additionally, Syracuse University is pursuing a P3 partner to upgrade and operate their campus steam station and chilled water plant.

In the midst of our ongoing climate crisis, higher education institutions have a special obligation to follow the science and convert energy generation to largely emission-free technologies like high-efficiency heat pumps, solar panels with battery storage and purchasing clean-grid electricity. Students concerned about climate change can influence their campuses to serve as true models of a clean energy transition. They should start by closely scrutinizing institutional partnerships with the dirty energy companies that caused the climate crisis in the first place.