Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt Loves Natural Gas, Should You?

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In Jan. 2023, Vanderbilt announced its Central Utilities Initiative and broke ground next to the Rec Center on a new natural gas power plant. This marks the second phase in a university-wide adoption of natural gas energy, which began in 2014 when the last coal boilers on campus were demolished. The existing power plant, which sits between Rand and Branscomb, produces 23% of campus electricity and enough steam for 90% of heating needs. All other power is purchased from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which primarily uses natural gas and hydroelectric for generation.

Many college campuses predate the city infrastructure that surrounds them, and dozens in the US choose to make some of their own power. This new plant is a good sign for sustainable energy on campus even though it is not renewable. Generating electricity on-site has numerous benefits, the biggest being the shorter distance that power needs to travel. Electrical lines are not perfectly efficient, as evidenced by how much of what the TVA supplies from their own plants is lost on the way. According to a few estimates, line losses are between 0.5% and 2% per 100 miles. 

Vanderbilt also uses the byproducts from energy generation. Steam and chilled water are fed directly into plumbing to heat or cool nearby facilities. Rand is entirely steam-heated, along with almost every building on main campus. Installation of these hot water lines is why the road in front of Highland Quad has been ripped up.

Not everything is ideal though. Ambiguity in both Vanderbilt materials and local documentation makes most efficiency claims hard to verify. The school reports that if the generators were turned off, the campus’ overall carbon footprint would double. This seems optimistic as there are 4 TVA power plants within 40 miles. No information is publicly available about the generation capacity of the new Highland plant, and permits that Vanderbilt applied for with the city have no information beyond the foundation pit size. The only place that confirms the 13.5 MW capacity of the Rand plant is a small pdf report from the Department of Energy. It is also not clear exactly where our natural gas comes from. Vanderbilt purchases it from Piedmont, a local distributor, but Piedmont does not publicly disclose specifically where that gas is sourced.

Natural gas is often extracted using hydraulic fracturing (fracking), a notoriously polluting process. Piedmont’s website only mentions fracking once, calling it “safe to people and the environment” in a brief 2012 memo. They have been radio silent since a 2016 EPA report found significant harm to drinking water and the environment from fracking.

Vanderbilt as a school has shown its commitment to clean energy through multimillion-dollar infrastructure spending. The future is green, but convincing students of that may require a more transparent approach and an admission of some weaknesses.

 

Image by Martin Adams from Unsplash

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About the Contributor
Robert Harvey, Contributor
Rob is a Sophomore at Vanderbilt studying Public Policy with a minor in Communication of Science and Technology. He has lived abroad in Sweden and likes to focus on the geographical and technological aspects of politics. Rob is also an avid car guy and lover of the environment.