Frequently Asked Questions

This list of Frequently Asked Questions has been developed to help keep the Oberlin College campus and City of Oberlin community informed while a transition of the campus energy system is undertaken. This list is iterative and new information will be added as feedback on the project is received.

OBERLIN MOVES TOWARD CARBON NEUTRALITY

What is Oberlin’s carbon neutrality commitment?

Oberlin College is committed to pursuing the goal of campus carbon neutrality by 2025. The college signed the Carbon Commitment (previously the American Colleges & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment) in 2006. Carbon neutrality means reducing greenhouse emissions to zero or otherwise balancing emissions to zero through sequestration and offsets. The college is focusing on implementing tangible and significant changes on campus, rather than investing money in offsets elsewhere.

What has Oberlin already done to reduce its carbon footprint?

After the Carbon Commitment was signed in 2006, the first greenhouse gas inventory was completed in 2007. Since the first inventory, the college has cut on-campus emissions by roughly half by purchasing green electricity, installing 2.27 MW of solar, implementing energy efficiency projects, and ending the use of coal for heating.

Oberlin Carbon Neutrality Timeline

What is included in the next phase of decarbonization?

To move the campus toward its carbon neutrality goal, it is critical to upgrade the antiquated and failing steam system that delivers heat to the campus. By replacing the steam distribution with a hot water and chilled water system, it enables the integration of carbon-free energy sources to displace fossil fuels. It was determined in March 2021 that this source will be geothermal. The combination of upgrading the distribution system and shifting the campus heating and cooling to geothermal and heat pumps, will bring Oberlin College within 11% of its carbon neutrality goal.

 

INFRASTRUCTURE AND ENERGY CONVERSION PROJECT

When was it determined the infrastructure system needed to be upgraded?

In 2016 the college released a new master plan for sustainable infrastructure, which analyzed a variety of options for both the heating system and its principal source of energy. In March, trustees approved a plan that utilizes an “energy district” approach that uses a single source of heat and cooling for most campus buildings, as well as several nearby buildings that purchase their heating energy from the College.

Why is this project happening now?

The campus is currently served by heating infrastructure that is in some cases 100 years old, well beyond the expected lifespan of such a system. Despite meticulous maintenance over the decades, parts of that system have begun to fail, including leaks and underground pipe collapses that cause disruption, unexpected costs, and in some cases, damage to property. That risk grows over time, making it imperative for the college to act promptly.

Why is the college installing a geothermal heating and cooling system?

The geothermal system will replace the failing, century-old infrastructure with a system that will bring air conditioning to more buildings, improve the temperature control across campus, and bolster reliability.

What savings will the college realize when the project is complete?

The college will save more than $1 million a year in energy costs. The transition also will reduce Oberlin’s water use by more than 5 million gallons per year, reduce sewer discharge by more than 4 million gallons per year, and improve campus energy efficiency by more than 30 percent.

How much will the project cost and how will it be funded?

The college estimates the overall cost at $140 million. In addition to geothermal heating and cooling and supporting infrastructure, this estimate also covers significant upgrades to the college’s electrical system and information technology infrastructure, which will cost less if combined with the geothermal project. Funding sources are expected to include long-term debt financing, federal grants, tax credits, and other possible outside sources, subject to trustee approval.

Will the college be carbon neutral when the geothermal project is completed?

The project will bring Oberlin within reach of its ambitious goal to become carbon neutral—using efficiencies, clean energy sources, and offsets to bring the institution’s net release of carbon dioxide to zero—by 2025.

What will happen to the current natural gas heating system?

The project will convert the boiler plant for use with geothermal energy, using current equipment as a natural-gas backup

 

CAMPUS CONSTRUCTION

When does construction start and how long until the project is completed?

To transition the campus to this sustainable infrastructure (featuring modern district energy and geothermal), construction will begin the week of May 24, 2021. Some activity may be observed on campus in April and early May as the construction project team begins preparing the first phase of buildings for conversion to this system. It is anticipated that the project will take four years to complete.

What is included in the construction work?

Activities will be classified in four major categories: 1) building conversion and modernization, 2) hot water and chilled water distribution, 3) conversion of the existing central plant, and 4) integration of the carbon-free source—geothermal. Crews will also be undertaking needed upgrades to electrical and information technology at the same time,  to reduce costs and disruption.

Where on campus will construction work take place?

Significant work will be occurring in three different areas of the campus. Renovation of south campus buildings will start at the Conservatory Central Unit, South Hall, Harvey, Kade, Price, and Baldwin. The utility infrastructure in these buildings will all be upgraded during this summer. The Central Plant will also be renovated to accommodate the new carbon-free energy source and support the overall construction period. Lastly, new water pipes will be installed in the south and west campuses this summer, connecting the Central Plant to these buildings for the delivery of carbon-free heating and cooling.

What will you see on campus when work begins?

Most building work will be inside the vacated buildings over the summer. You will see workers walking in and out and hear some noise, but if you avoid South campus, you won’t see much of that work. The distribution installation will be going around Wilder Bowl and then to south campus. Some sidewalks and walkways will be temporarily closed, and you will see a lot of water pipe getting installed in the ground. There will be plenty of signs telling you where you can and cannot walk, and fencing to keep everyone safe. You will also see equipment transporting pipe and materials to our work zones.

Who is the college’s partner in this project?

This project is being done in partnership with Ever-Green Energy, a Minnesota-based company focused on advancing and operating energy systems.

How can I stay updated on construction activities?

Updates will be posted to this website – https://carbonneutraloc.com/resources/construction-updates/

Other plans are in progress to provide the campus and community with regular updates and contacts to ask construction questions.

 

GEOTHERMAL

 What is geothermal energy?

Geothermal is broadly defined as the capture of thermal energy from the internal heat of the earth. Historically, geothermal was most commonly deployed in areas with large reservoirs of heat, particularly near volcanoes or other geologic formations with higher concentrations of available heat. The largest systems of this type produce heat intense enough to generate power, accounting for 3.7 gigawatts in the United States according to the US Department of Energy. Heating and electricity production from geothermal account for 2 percent of the overall energy portfolio in the U.S., according to the International Energy Agency.

How does geothermal work?

Geothermal systems utilize vertical closed-loop wells that are drilled into the earth, or horizontal wells, to provide heat exchange with the ground. Geothermal well fields are typically closed-loop, meaning that the circulating fluid is not directly in contact with the ground or groundwater aquifers to prevent contamination. Specific well field design varies by topography, geology, and climate. Once in place, the wells allow heat to both be drawn from the earth during the winter and rejected from buildings back into the earth during the summer. Ground temperatures vary by region and systems must be designed to effectively work with the available thermal capacity of the earth. These systems will allow rejected heat from air conditioning during the summer months to be stored and reused during the heating season.

How was geothermal determined as the best carbon-free energy source?

In 2019, nine different low-carbon or carbon-free sources were reviewed as options to serve the campus. These included two types of geoexchange—aquifer thermal energy storage and geothermal, biofuels, biogas, biomass, capturing heat from power production using landfill gas, and incorporating either solar or wind production with electric boilers. These scenarios were compared to what is known as a Business-As-Usual scenario, which looks at more traditional energy production with fossil fuels, which is the primary approach for serving Oberlin’s heating and cooling today.

These options were thoroughly vetted with a team of experts and representatives from Oberlin College, with consideration for environmental impact, greenhouse gas emissions, financial impact (short and long-term), and ease of integration into existing campus systems.

 

STEAM-TO-HOT WATER TRANSITION

 What is district energy?

District energy systems produce hot water, steam, or chilled water at a central plant or satellite plants and then distribute the energy through a network of underground pipes to connected buildings. At the building’s mechanical interface, energy is transferred to the building’s internal water or HVAC loop. HVAC refers to the heating and air conditioning equipment that disperses and manages conditioned space in a building. In a hot water system, once a building takes the energy it requires, the water is returned to the central plant to be heated or cooled to the desired supply temperature and then recirculated through the closed-loop network.

Why were older district energy systems designed with steam?

Early district systems relied on high combustion energy sources that generated steam for heat or electricity, where the heat could be removed as steam that could be sent through a pipe for buildings to use. Using steam did not require a pump, which had advantages to systems 140 years ago.

How does a hot water system work?

Inside the main central plant at the college are a series of boilers. Hot water could be produced by combusting natural gas in these boilers (with future potential for biomass/biofuel). The water would be distributed to buildings through a system of underground pipes. This piping loop would supply hot water to buildings and bring cooler water back to the plant to reheat. Once the water reaches the building, the energy runs through the building heating system to heat the internal spaces.

To heat building spaces, hot water is circulated through the building pipes and out to radiators or fan coils that can warm air in rooms and hallways. Additional radiators and coils in air handling units may be installed as part of the project to accommodate the lower water supply temperatures.

The thermal energy (via hot water from our system) can be used to heat water for showers, washing hands, or cooking. This is called domestic hot water usage. A heat exchanger will be used to separate the district hot water system from the domestic hot water system.

What is more efficient about hot water systems?

Closed-loop hot water systems can operate at a much lower temperature than the existing steam system. The lower the temperature of the heating medium, the lower the heat loss. This is due to the temperature difference between the heating medium and the surrounding air temperature, and the rate at which the heating medium cools. The greater the difference, the faster the heating medium will give up heat, which is energy.

Hot water systems also make it easier to integrate low or no-carbon energy sources. Combustible renewables can more efficiently be integrated. Other sources, such as geothermal, are easier to integrate with hot or ambient water loops because they don’t need to provide higher temperatures to meet the input requirements of steam.

Why is Oberlin College converting the system?

A conversion of the energy system from steam to hot water will create a more efficient and less wasteful system, leading to better environmental outcomes, and major progress towards Oberlin’s 2025 carbon neutrality goal. The conversion of the system to hot water will facilitate campus decarbonization and reduce water usage. The current steam pipes have also aged significantly. By replacing these pipes during the transition to hot water, the college is taking a proactive step towards avoiding any emergencies or increased maintenance due to old pipes.

How will this make the Oberlin energy system more efficient?

The new closed-loop hot water system will greatly reduce the temperature of the water used to heat buildings on campus. Water as a heat transfer fluid is more controllable than steam, allowing for more precise temperature control and less wasted heat. Additionally, energy in a loop can return to the plant in a cycle to get reheated and sent back out to customers. This saves energy and water!

How will this improve Oberlin’s commitment to the environment?

  • Increases efficiency = less energy, less water
  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
  • Positions the system to integrate renewable energy, such as biomass (wood chips or renewable fuel oil sourced from biomass or agricultural crops)
  • Creates the potential to use a heat pump energy source, which would use only electricity that comes from renewable sources.

 

COMMUNITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS OF TRANSITION

 What are the other benefits to the campus?

  • Establish a national model for carbon-neutral energy solutions serving a college campus.
  • Educate and assist the campus and community on opportunities for behavioral changes that can lead to greater energy and water conservation, waste reduction, and more efficient energy systems.
  • Reduce/eliminate reliance on fossil fuels.

What opportunities for academic collaboration and learning will be available through the project?

Students have been engaged in the project planning already through the environmental studies curriculum. Internship opportunities also are being developed as part of the construction process.

How can this project create and promote equitable outcomes for the community?

This system transformation will model what a conversion to a renewable and efficient energy system can look like. Once the system conversion is complete, Oberlin College hopes to be a resource that other schools and communities can utilize as they work towards better energy systems.

Energy and resource extraction and disposal most often disproportionately affect the poorest among us. By taking a proactive approach to removing fossil fuels from campus, the college can work to source responsibly and reduce undue burden on communities near and far.

What other sustainability efforts have been made on campus?

  • Oberlin Municipal Light and Power Systems (OMLPS) is the electricity provider to the college and provides the campus with 86% renewable energy.
  • The transition of the central heating plant from coal to natural gas in 2015 and the OMLPS renewable portfolio reduced the carbon footprint of the campus by 65% below the 2008-2009 baseline.
  • The Environmental Dashboard is part of an important effort to educate and lead to more sustainable behavior on campus. Tying the use of heating and cooling to the dashboard is an important part of next steps for these efforts.
  • A long history of campus leadership has led to globally-recognized environmental showcases, most notably the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies (constructed in 2000).

There are hundreds of sustainability efforts on campus, from courses to research to programs. You can view some highlights on the OES website programs page.