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Sustainability efforts continue at NMU

University receives silver rating

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University’s Sustainability Week, which is taking place this week, is a way for students and the community to learn about such environmentally friendly measures.

NMU student John O’Bryan, who is working toward a bachelor of science degree and specializing in Individualized Studies-Climate Advocacy, delivered a virtual presentation on Wednesday regarding Northern’s road toward a carbon-neutral campus.

“There’s these severe weather events,” said O’Bryan, who also is an intern with NMU’s Sustainability Advisory Council. “That’s the major issue that is why it’s important to us, why we need to act.”

O’Bryan showed a photograph of the 2019 damage done to Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette following a heavy storm, with the smokestacks at the now-idled Presque Isle Power Plant seen in the background. Those smokestacks have since been removed.

The biggest driver of climate change, he noted, is coal since it emits a lot of carbon dioxide per unit of energy that’s in it. However, other sources of climate change are being addressed in the proposed Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a bipartisan bill geared toward clean energy.

O’Bryan mentioned net-negative emissions, which occurs when more carbon is removed by the atmosphere and stored by a process than is emitted into the atmosphere.

“If you wait too long to reduce, then you have to go deeper into negative territory,” he said.

O’Bryan stressed that legislation dealing with clean energy “is going to happen.”

“There’s going to be legislation that makes it more expensive to burn fossil fuels,” he said.

How would NMU go along with the trajectory to net-zero and net-negative emissions?

O’Bryan talked about several possibilities, including the Ripley Heating Plant, located at the corner of Wright Street and Sugar Loaf Avenue, which has the capacity to use wood chips.

“Right now, they’re burning natural gas because it’s cheaper than wood chips,” he said.

However, O’Bryan pointed out that if natural gas prices go up, when does it become less expensive to burn wood chips?

If Ripley can burn wood chips and use carbon-capture technology, he said, it could be a net-negative source of emissions and heat the campus.

“You would sequester the carbon with the trees,” he said. “You grow the trees, burn the wood, let the trees regrow. You’re harvesting them on a sustainable basis, and then you’re pumping that carbon down into geological formation.”

O’Bryan said NMU owns 32 acres of sandy land near Kawbawgam Road in Harvey, which could be used to grow trees and sequester carbon.

Additionally, the NMU broadcast tower in Ely Township that services WNMU-TV and WNMU-FM is a good site for solar power, he said, with another possible site for solar energy being the NMU Golf Course in Harvey.

He acknowledged wind power generates more energy, though, than solar power.

“Economically, they’re saying with a carbon tax, wind is going to be the big player, the big source of energy compared to solar,” O’Bryan said.

He had yet another suggestion for future NMU building projects to sequester carbon.

“Build them out of wood,” O’Bryan said. “That’s carbon that you grew in a forest, and then you sustainably harvest it.”

The United States will soon take aggressive action on the climate crisis on par with the rest of the globe’s commitments, O’Bryan said in an email.

“I’m hoping for a price on carbon, which will trigger the market, including NMU, to cost effectively transition to energy efficiency and renewables.”

However, reducing emissions will not be enough to meet global targets of only 1.5 degrees centigrade or even 2 degrees celsius, he said.

“We need to reach net negative emissions, like what Microsoft has pledged to do,” O’Bryan said. “This can take place at NMU through bio-based strategies, like forestry, composting and building with wood. It can also be accomplished with technological solutions, like burning wood chips again in the Ripley Steam Plant while capturing the carbon dioxide off the smoke stack for permanent geologic storage. This would be carbon-negative heat and power.”

O’Bryan said his next step is sifting through the data, running the numbers and determining the most feasible project to start with. He will work with others such as the Sustainability Advisory Council, EcoReps, the Green Fund and NMU Facilities Operations, especially its associate vice president, Kathy Richards, to come up with “a plan of attack.”

NMU receives silver rating

NMU’s STARS rating, determined by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education as a measure of universities’ performance related to sustainability, advanced to silver in 2020 from bronze three years ago.

The rating system factors in academics and research, operations, administration/ planning and engagement.

Sarah Mittlefehldt, NMU Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences professor and representative on the SAC, said the improved rating is likely attributed to several key factors, but increased engagement through EcoReps in particular.

EcoReps is a student sustainability peer-to-peer education program.

“The NMU Board of Trustees recognized the value of the program and, at one of its meetings, committed financial support to run it,” Mittlefehldt said in a news release. “With that boost and (public relations professor) Jes Thompson’s leadership, the program grew dramatically. EcoReps created and coordinated sustainability programming that reached more than 4,800 students.”

Student leaders organized a survey and got support for a campus Green Fund, which the board of trustees recently passed, she said.

“Students now have the option to pay a $5 fee to support sustainability programming,” Mittlefehldt said. “They can opt out of it, but only 803 opted out this semester, while 5,517 students opted to support sustainability on campus.”

In academics, departments offering sustainability-related courses increased from 62% to 80% in three years, according to NMU. The number of departments with at least one faculty member performing sustainability research jumped from 38% to 68%, and nearly 25% of NMU tenure-track faculty are involved in related research.

Is achieving gold status possible between now and when the next ratings are announced in 2023?

“It would take something pretty big to move up to gold,” Mittlefehldt said. “So a while back, when the university was seeking ‘big idea’ proposals to possibly present to external donors, our submission for a sustainability hub on campus rose toward the top. We’re all volunteers on the committee, and can only work on sustainability beyond our regular jobs.

“Our hope is to secure external funding to support a director for the hub and to pay students for leadership development through EcoReps. This would really bring sustainability to the next level at Northern.”

Mittlefehldt and other NMU Sustainability Advisory Council reps will deliver NMU’s Sustainability Audit Update at noon today via Zoom link https://nmu.zoom.us/j/94667563546

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