Six energy-producing microturbines, purchased in 2016 and 2017, currently sit idle on Lone Mountain. The University has not been authorized to use the equipment yet because the microturbines do not comply with emission standards enforced by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), but is in the process of obtaining a permit for the microturbines. It is unclear how long these machines will remain unused.
The practice of sustainability and the importance of environmental consciousness is instilled within the members of the University’s community. In an attempt to advance environmental justice, a “Climate Action Plan” was created in December 2014. Some of the ways in which the University has put the Climate Action Plan into effect include utilizing solar installations to significantly reduce carbon emissions, promoting the everyday practice of recycling and composting to minimize waste, and investing in more efficient landscaping and irrigation equipment to reduce water use.
The turbines were purchased to keep the University in line with its goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Without the turbines, the University achieved its goal in 2019, largely through the purchase of carbon offsets. Bringing the turbines online would likely decrease the number of carbon offsets purchased each year — the 2014 plan identified carbon offsets as a “last resort.”
What is a microturbine?
A microturbine is akin to a generator, producing both heat and electricity through combustion of fuels like natural gas, diesel, or propane. Eco-conscious microturbines can achieve significantly lower levels of emissions while simultaneously producing combined thermal and electrical efficiency levels as high as 85%. The most sustainable microturbines produce byproducts of water vapor and carbon dioxide — all other byproducts that may be produced by microturbines (such as carbon monoxide) are considered to be environmental pollutants, according to the California Air Resources Board.
Although the University purchased the microturbines with the intention of maximizing energy efficiency for the facilities located on Lone Mountain, the school has been unable to put the microturbines to use due to their failure to comply with specific areas of emission standards. According to Michael E. London, the associate vice president of Facilities Management, the University acquired the first two Capstone C65 microturbines in 2016 and made a second purchase of four additional units in 2017. The Foghorn is not aware of the amount USF paid for the microturbines, but a 2009 report by Forecast International, a market forecasting group, listed the C65 at around $40,000 per unit at the time.
London stated that the University is working with the microturbine manufacturer, technical consultants, and the BAAQMD to obtain permits for the machinery, but the delay leads to questions about the University’s actions in the permitting process.
London described the process of obtaining a permit as being “very technical and laborious.” The BAAQMD website lays out a four step process for permit approval: reviewing procedures in the permit application package, submitting the appropriate application forms, providing details on the equipment and plans for use, and paying any necessary permitting or filing fees.
At the time of publication, the exact action plan for bringing the C65 microturbines online was not known. The school could invest in upgrading the equipment to bring it up to emissions standards or buy new, up-to-par equipment.
The microturbines were expected to recoup their initial investment within five years, but that moment remains out of reach until the equipment is brought online.