Living the Question: A Glimpse into the Ongoing UCSB Clean Energy Master Plan

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April Zhang 

Science & Tech Editor 

Decarbonization is a hit word that’s constantly thrown around, but what does it really mean in our day-to-day context, and for a large-scale establishment like a university? An ongoing study at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) might offer some clues. 

Energy comes in two forms: electricity in the grid and natural gas. For UCSB, grid-based electricity comes from a combination of solar, wind, and other renewable power sources; the main campus has been carbon-free since 2019, with the primary source of electricity from South California Edison (SCE). They provide energy from ventilation, cooling, lighting, and various types of plug loads (equipment that plugs in). 

Natural gas, on the other hand, comes to campus via a single, large pipeline from the SoCalGas company. It is used primarily for heating, cooking, hot water, and some processes used in departmental labs. To learn more, The Bottom Line (TBL) spoke with Jordan Sager, the Campus Energy Manager and Assistant Director of Design, Facilities & Safety Services at UCSB. He said, “[Natural gas] is obviously not carbon free, and that is THE challenge for our campus when we look at greenhouse gas reductions.” Sager is a part of the Campus Decarbonization Committee, which is in the process of developing a Clean Energy Master Plan

The Clean Energy Master Plan has been an undertaken effort since the beginning of the academic year until this summer. It is a joint effort with every other school in the UC system, assisted by funding coordinated by the state. Beginning with data collection in fall 2023, the team also recruited UCSB students as interns for outreach and research on different aspects. 

The combination of grid electricity and natural gas has always been feeding the campus systems, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the UC system made a plan to be able to form a collective of all campuses to buy power. By being classified as an Energy Service Provider (ESP), the UC is able to develop solar and wind farms or directly purchase power from state-wide markets, which can then be provided to the campuses. In UCSB’s case, while SCE’s infrastructure still provides the power to the campus, the university has decoupled the generation from the transmission component of the power system; SCE, who owns the powerlines and the infrastructure, is responsible for the transmission component. 

At the present moment, natural gas combustion on campus is by far the largest greenhouse gas emissions of this university, and that is at large where the Clean Energy Master Plan comes in.

The Decarbonization Study Project Committee have had various engagements with the wider campus community, since the kick-off meeting on Oct. 19. This was followed by a series of four workshops scattered throughout the following eight months, where they sought as much participation as possible from as many campus members as possible. 

“It will be a multi-year process,” Jordan expressed. His hope is to convert natural gas to electricity and prohibit the use of natural gas in all new buildings, beginning with the Interactive Learning Pavilion. 

When asked about how individuals and students living in Isla Vista and the UCSB campus can practice good energy management, Jordan suggested paying close attention to the timing of power usage. Prioritizing using power in the middle of the day or late night is less costly and carbon intensive than afternoon and evening hours: “avoid using electricity during the hours of 4–9 p.m. [and charging electrical vehicles], doing laundry, and running dishwashers and other large appliances after 9 p.m. if possible.”

The hope in early October of last year was to achieve at least a 90 percent reduction in natural gas from onsite combustion. The team met at the Clean Energy Master Plan Town Hall on June 5 to engage the general public.

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