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February 04, 2020

UVM and Middlebury Can Reduce Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions Tomorrow

According to a story in the Times of London, students at Oxford were occupying a quad and refusing to leave until the college divested $10 million of its endowment invested in fossil fuel. The bursar Andrew Parker wrote “I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice. But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”

When a protest organizer suggested he was being provocative, Parker wrote: “You are right that I am being provocative but I am provoking some clear thinking, I hope. It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal).”

So far no takers.

At UVM students are also demanding immediate divestiture from fossil fuel investments. But UVM has an alternative which Oxford doesn’t because UVM is located in Vermont and is served by VGS (formerly Vermont Gas System). VGS is the first utility in the country to have a tariffed offer for Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) – a non-fossil-fuel alternative to the natural gas which comes from wells.

Renewable natural gas is made by capturing naturally occurring methane emitted from decomposing waste materials at dairies, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants. This methane is a powerful greenhouse gas if released to the environment. The net effect of using RNG can be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below the level which would have occurred even if the university turned off its furnaces entirely since it replaces the current practice of releasing methane from food and waste into the environment.

A customer of VGS can simply call the utility and order any blend up to 100% RNG. Since RNG is chemically identical to fossil natural gas, no new equipment is needed, furnaces work normally, and RNG can be ordered by VGS and delivered to customers through their existing hookups. Note that the infrastructure which delivers this RNG is infrastructure students don’t want to invest in; but this shouldn’t bother UVM students in this case since that infrastructure is already installed to their campus. There is no obstacle to UVM using nothing but renewables for heat and hot water tomorrow (literally tomorrow) except that RNG costs more than fossil gas. Climate protestors are asking that Vermonters pay more to heat their homes and drive their cars. Shouldn’t protesting students be willing to do their share?

It’s not all or nothing. Even if UVM ordered only a 10% RNG mix (much cheaper), they’d be cutting their GHG emissions from heat and hot water by 10% - tomorrow!

Middlebury College is working with a farm nearby to take delivery of RNG through a new pipeline being built by VGS from the farm to the campus. Is this pipeline the kind of infrastructure its students and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, who is a professor there, don’t want the college to invest in? The RNG will be available beyond Middlebury through VGS pipelines; the very pipelines 350.org helped delay and made more expensive. Currently, BTW, those pipelines serve Middlebury with fossil natural gas, which is much cleaner than the dirty #6 oil the college used to burn. But, if Middlebury doesn’t want to continue burning fossil fuel while it waits for the pipe from the farm, all they have to do is call VGS and order RNG for delivery tomorrow. Not sure what they’re waiting for.

[Note: although I founded a company which delivers natural gas by truck and am still an investor in it, I have no financial interest in what fuel UVM and Middlebury choose to burn. Like bursar Parker, I just want to provoke some clear thinking.]

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