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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Strategies for Replacing Natural Gas to Help Decarbonize the University of California

Findings from the TomKat Natural Gas Exit Strategies Working Group

Building on its legacy of energy leadership, the University of California has set a bold goal: to become carbon neutral by 2025. Meeting this goal, called the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, requires eliminating the use of fossil-based natural gas by its buildings and vehicle fleet. A key question is how.

Natural gas currently accounts for almost two-thirds of UC’s emissions. Two-thirds of that natural gas is burned in large combined heating cooling and power plants (CHP), which are operated by seven of the ten campuses. These plants represent major investments in long-lived, cost-efficient natural gas-burning infrastructure that will complicate the task of rapid decarbonization.

To identify viable options for reducing and eventually eliminating the use of natural gas across the UC system, NCEAS convened a 27-member working group in 2017. This team included academic researchers with a wide range of expertise, students, and energy managers from five UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It also included a key representative of the UC Office of the President, who helped coordinate with other activities of the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative.

Download the full report of their findings.

Download the research brief.

This work is intended to serve as a resource for the University of California, other universities, and any other entity committed to pursuing deep decarbonization through the elimination of natural gas from its operations.

Key Findings

Our work helps to ground UC’s ambitious carbon neutrality goal through detailed analysis at the operational level that shows how it is attainable. In our report, we analyze the range of infrastructure and energy demands across UC’s ten campuses and present three complementary approaches for transitioning away from natural gas that can be customized to each campus’ specific needs:

  1. Reducing energy demand via deep energy efficiency across university infrastructure
  2. Substitution of renewable gas (i.e., biogas and hydrogen produced without GHG emissions) for natural gas, and
  3. Electrification of end uses, combined with 100% renewable electricity.

Efficiency investments are the first priority because they reduce demand for energy, enable down-sizing upstream equipment, and produce cost savings that can be re-invested in further efficiency measures. Though UC has made significant progress in this area, major energy savings could still be gained – aggressively retrofitting existing buildings could cut electricity use by 40% and natural gas use by 30%. These savings are substantial enough to significantly offset costs of other de-carbonization measures, such as biogas and electrification.

Two people walking through tunnel
Solar panels on UC Merced's Science and Engineering Building, courtesy UC Office of the President.

Replacing natural gas with renewable biogas provides a valuable drop-in strategy that buys time to deploy more permanent solutions. Biogas is not a widely scalable option since its capacity in the U.S. is estimated to satisfy only a small fraction of the nation’s total natural gas needs, and issues with methane leakage mean it is not a zero-carbon option. UC has already contracted for enough biogas to meet over 10% of projected natural gas demand, and is planning for and on track to contract 50% in the short term.

Electrification, accompanied by 100% renewable electricity generation, is the ultimate option for campus decarbonization, but innovation and experimentation are needed to narrow uncertainty bounds on cost and feasibility. This opportunity applies most readily to new construction, where costs are comparable to traditional construction, and the replacement of aging infrastructure or building energy systems. 

Moving Forward

As UC moves forward in pursuit of carbon neutrality, we recommend it does the following:

  • Embrace the challenge of transformation – Success will require transformational effort by University leadership, students, staff, and faculty who are engaged in testing ideas at small and system scales, learning what works, and sharing information in rapid cycles.
  • Pursue scalable solutions – Pursue solutions that are transferable and scalable
  • Document and communicate – the UC can help enable decarbonization elsewhere by documenting and communicating the results of the experimental approach we present, so that the rest of the world can see and learn from what it is doing.

The University’s carbon neutrality goal is ambitious, but attainable. Deep decarbonization will require attention not just to what is doable now, but also gaining the information and experience needed to make distant options—such as universal electrification—a reality in the future.

Citation: Meier, A., S.J. Davis, D.G. Victor, K. Brown, L. McNeilly, M. Modera, R.Z. Pass, J. Sager, D. Weil, D. Auston, A. Abdulla, F. Bockmiller, W. Brase, J. Brouwer, C. Diamond, E. Dowey, J. Elliott, R. Eng, S. Kaffka, C.V. Kappel, M. Kloss, I Mezić, J. Morejohn, D. Phillips, E. Ritzinger, S. Weissman, J. Williams. 2018. University of California Strategies for Decarbonization: Replacing Natural Gas. UC TomKat Carbon Neutrality Project.

This project was made possible by a gift from the TomKat Foundation and supplemental funding from the University of California Office of the President and the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and Banatao Institute.

Header image credit: David Phillips/UCOP