What is in IU’s Climate Action Plan?
A breakdown, and reactions from activists.
by Andrew Miller on Oct. 19,2023
On Sept. 11, IU announced the passage of its Climate Action Plan, the culmination of over a year's work from the Climate Action Planning Committee and the largest investment the university has made towards sustainability.
The Climate Action Planning Committee, formed in May 2022 after a series of student protests, was directed by IU President Pamela Whitten to create comprehensive recommendations that would reduce IU’s greenhouse gas emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040.
The released plan provides six recommendation categories to achieve this goal: utility grid, infrastructure, renewables, behavior, financing and implementation.
Here’s a full breakdown of all of them :
Indiana's Utility Grid
The first recommendation category highlights Indiana's utility grid, the university’s system of power generation and distribution. This category provides four specific actions: to monitor the grid’s reduction of fossil fuels against IU’s goal for carbon neutrality by 2040, examine existing contracts, partner with companies and the state of Indiana to support innovation from energy providers, and coordinate with companies for equitable decarbonization.
IU’s newly appointed Chief Sustainability Officer Jessica Davis said IU does not have the ability to switch away from energy providers due to Indiana’s status as a regulated utility state. If utility companies are not reaching goals, she said, the university will make up for it in several areas.
She said IU has started communicating with these utility providers about several projects, including electrification of fleets and projected decarbonization. The university will also collaborate with energy providers to ensure equitable energy prices for communities around its campuses.
IU uses eight utility providers across its campuses: Duke Energy, AES Indiana, NIPSCO, Indiana Michigan Power, Richmond Power & Light, WEC Energy Group, SCI REMC and Vigilante Energy Collective.
Duke Energy has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, net-zero methane emissions by 2030 and a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. In a 2021 Report , the company claims to have reduced carbon emissions by 40% since 2005. Duke Energy supplies power to IU’s campuses in Bloomington, Kokomo and New Albany.
Angeline Protogere, principal communication consultant for Duke Energy, said in a statement they are implementing new green-energy projects in the state, including a 199-megawatt solar plant in Shelby County, and an expansion of the Markland hydroelectric plant. Protogere said they will also continue to support energy efficiency programs that will reduce the need for additional power generation. These programs have already saved 2 billion kilowatt-hours over the last decade.
AES Indiana, which supplies power to IUPUI, has committed to having net-zero carbon emissions for electricity sales by 2040, with net-zero for all business scopes coming in 2050.
NIPSCO, which powers IU Northwest, has committed to retiring all its coal power plants by 2028, resulting in a 90% decrease in emissions from 2005. WEC Energy Group , which supplies power to IU Bloomington, IUPUI, and IUPUC, says it will achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Richmond Power & Light, SCI REMC, and Vigilante Energy Cooperative have not published any goals for net-zero carbon emissions. The companies supply power to IU East and IU Bloomington.
As part of its infrastructure recommendations, IU aims to transition to electric vehicles and equipment and increase energy efficiency in its buildings by adding more energy-efficient LED lighting systems, replacing equipment with Energy Star certified equipment and changing temperature set-points.
According to the plan, IU Bloomington’s central heating plant currently operates at 75% efficiency, with 25% distributional loss in efficiency, meaning a great deal of energy is wasted.
The plan aims to replace this low-efficiency system with low entropy or district energy systems , which Davis said operate at higher efficiencies and make systems like heat recovery viable.
However, this will be a complex and costly process. To combat this, the plan proposes using available funds to remove areas around the edges of campus from the steam network, which runs underground and supplies heat around campus. This process will repeat over time until eventually the entire campus is converted away. The plan also calls for the installation of heat pumps at locations where they will be most effective, which they are evaluating.
Transitioning IU’s vehicles and equipment to electric models will involve installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure, electrifying grounds and maintenance equipment, and researching emerging technologies. The plan also will replace current vehicles with EVs as needed.
The renewable energy category calls for an expansion of IU’s renewable energy portfolio to help reduce reliance on fossil fuels, reducing carbon emissions by around 5%.
To add more renewable technology to IU’s campuses, the plan proposes collaborating with researchers and industry partners to investigate emerging technologies and installing solar panels where viable.
Davis said they will ultimately replace IU Bloomington’s central heating plant, which is currently running on natural gas, with one of three options: hydrogen, nuclear or biogas. At prior forums, this conversion was slated to be done between 2038-2039.
Campus Operations and Behavior
IU’s Climate Action Plan proposes changes in scheduling, space utilization and behavior for students, staff and the overall campus to decrease emissions.
Scheduling changes will involve staggering class schedules to spread out peak energy demand periods, holding more classes in more energy-efficient buildings, and creating automation-based energy systems to align with class schedules. This would allow the university to optimize temperature control and lighting levels along with scheduled occupancy.
Davis said IU will be moving to optimize space usage. She said students can already see some changes to some recent building designs, with more modular spaces built for multiple purposes. The university will also discourage the use of energy-intensive single-user appliances, like individual space heaters or refrigerators, and will alter temperatures within buildings.
Funding for the plan will include allocated support from the university’s annual repair and rehabilitation budget, debt financing, and philanthropic and state support, among others.
Due to IU’s AAA long term credit rating, the university will be able to utilize debt financing for large and long-term projects with low interest rates. Davis said the plan also recommends using campus energy funds, which capture energy savings from new efficient or renewable energy methods and diverts those savings into new projects. According to the plan, this will prevent IU from having to rely solely on outside investment.
Because IU doesn’t pay taxes, Davis said, tax exemptions like the 30% solar exemption implemented with the Inflation Reduction Act will essentially be a direct pay to the university. At the state and federal level, she said they will take advantage of funds to implement electric vehicle charging infrastructure as well as heating-focused projects.
To more effectively incorporate sustainability into financing, the plan recommends assigning a monetary value to each additional ton of CO2 emissions with the Social and lifestyle cost of carbon According to the plan, this will incentivize projects that positively impact IU’s carbon footprint.
Implementing the plan will involve a full-time staff, which Davis will head as Chief Sustainability Officer. Each campus will receive offices of sustainability and implementation committees made up of students, staff, faculty, and subject matter experts.
She said that they’re currently working on securing directors of sustainability for all campuses. Once they have the teams, they will work with campus leadership to build the implementation committees, then begin putting the plan into action.
Student activists respond
Soha Vora, president of climate activism group Students for a New Green World, said SNGW, while glad the plan was passed, was disappointed about the plan’s ambiguity and noncommitment.
“I don’t think it achieved its purpose as a plan,” Vora said. “To me a plan has connotations of details, guides of how you’re going to do something, maybe dates.” Within the utility grid section, she said SNGW wants to see more action taken by IU itself, rather than deferring too much responsibility to utility companies, also noting the renewables section was the shortest of the document, again lacking specific action.
“I understand they’re playing around with a few different renewable energy sources, which is good, but they need a lot more than what they’re proposing especially if the goal is to eventually transition entirely into renewable,” Vora said. Vora said she was also disappointed that there weren’t any numbers for how campus behavior currently affects emissions and for what IU aims to reduce them to, playing into the larger theme of a lack of quantifiable data.
Though they were encouraged by the exclusion of carbon credits and inclusion of the social cost of carbon within the financing section, Vora said SNGW was disappointed that divestment from fossil fuels was not included in the plan and that it again lacked specific numbers.
She said that while student behavior does impact emissions, she recommends students organize with climate activism groups or join research centers on campus to make a larger difference. However, she said she is concerned with students’ ability to participate in sustainability-focused research going forward.
“They’re currently cutting environmental research programs, like they just closed down the Indiana Environmental Reporter and the Food Institute,” Vora said. “How are student supposed to be involved in research when we’re closing them down?” As for what’s next, Vora said SNGW is still evaluating.
“Right now, we’re focusing our thoughts on what we want to organize around and the key things we want out of this,” Vora said. “That’s going to be the goal of the next semester or two."
Davis said that she has always been an optimist when it comes to climate change. Especially recently, she said, there has been an increase in activism, local support, and federal support when it comes to this issue. She said the students involved in pushing for the plan were a crucial part of why it’s here at all and encouraged students to reach out to her with questions and concerns.
Davis emphasized that this plan should be subject to change as new technology emerges and humanity gains a better understanding of the climate crisis. She said that this is one of the strengths of the document — it allows itself to be a living and breathing document subject to change as the world does.
“IU’s plan is unique in that this is all stuff that is feasible,” Davis said. “It represents one of our biggest commitments and investments that IU has ever made, and now it’s time to get to work."