Two days ago I wrote about Foothill’s upcoming discussion about its climate goals. How did that go?
The Foothill-DeAnza College Board of Trustees met last night to discuss whether to move forward with a staff proposal to use gas boilers to heat its new Olympic-sized pool. What was fascinating about the conversation was the fundamental change in perspective of some of the board members, from climate goals being a nice-to-have aspiration to being something more foundational, as important as a budget. If you are planning a new building, you obviously consider the budget. But shouldn’t we, asked a board member, also be asking about the emissions impact of that building? Or as one faculty member who spoke put it, “If we can’t afford a clean pool, then maybe we can’t afford a pool.” This is a new perspective for many of us, and it takes some getting used to. But it is precisely the perspective that having meaningful climate goals entails.
One thing that some of the most committed companies do to facilitate this mindset is to employ an internal carbon price. That allows them to consider emissions just as they would consider costs. That price may be set at $50/ton (about what the US uses today) or at $200/ton (what the EPA and others estimate is closer to the actual social cost of carbon). Using an internal carbon price brings better visibility to climate goals and provides a uniform language (budget) for talking about them. I would encourage Foothill/DeAnza to look into doing this. In addition to using it in budgeting discussions, they might also pay into a fund as they generate emissions, then use the proceeds to fund electrification efforts, as a sort of hyper-local offset.
Beyond the very evident change in perspective that some board members brought to this meeting, though, was anything actually different? Chancellor Lee Lambert and President Kristina Whalen did not seem especially moved. They doubted that more study would bring new information. Would the electrification cost, the heat pump sound, the space requirements, or the operational needs change significantly if the engineers looked into them one more time? Representatives from Salas O’Brien pushed back on many of the community criticisms, saying they were accounted for or that there were misunderstandings. I find the spokespeople from Salas O’Brien to be knowledgeable and credible, and in my opinion it’s unlikely they are missing something big.
But I disagree with Lambert and Whalen that any additional delay will not help. In fact I think it can make all the difference. If you adopt the perspective that this pool cannot be built unless it is part of a plan to meet the district’s climate goals, which I think is what came out of this meeting, then there is a lot more thinking that can be done. Here are a few examples.
A Salas O’Brien representative spoke about the campus-wide study they are doing to provide a general strategy and cost for campus-wide decarbonization. As some other schools have done, this would involve a central electric heating facility (with heat pumps), a campus-wide “primary” loop that conveys heat, and secondary loops that distribute it to various facilities. In this vision, the pool would be on one of those secondary loops. The representative said that this would allow an all-electric pool to be done at lower cost. The full decarbonization study isn’t due until December, but there might be enough information to sketch this out sooner. How much cost could be saved, how much prep for this could be done in advance, etc?
He added that any gas put in prior to that campus-wide vision, which is at least five years out, would not be a huge expense. A delay would allow for proper accounting of that temporary-gas cost, including any internal carbon pricing or gas offsets. The district could also decide, even with electric heat in place, whether to use a small amount of supplemental gas to simplify the electric system or to reduce pool downtime. Very unusual but high-demand situations like filling up a pool could be managed more quickly with gas, and the pool could remain open on very cold days or through power outages. By 2035 keeping gas around for this purpose might be very expensive, for example due to carbon capture requirements, but it could be an option.
Student trustee Gomez Tagle suggested a very different idea, observing that robust bus service between the Foothill and DeAnza campuses, which are less than a ten-minute drive apart, might enable other options. The two pool facilities, one at each campus, account for a full one-third of emissions across the Foothill-DeAnza district. If you were to have just one pool facility and shuttle buses between campuses, that would automatically halve pool emissions. Such a bus would be used for many other purposes, and would reduce student car traffic. A PE coach in attendance stated that having just one aquatic facility doesn’t work for the water polo teams, which have been forced to cancel their seasons. But there may be pool configurations that would provide ample capacity while also using less energy. Does the district really need two Olympic-sized pools? Could they make do with something less, possibly instead adding an exciting facility for some other activity that is not so energy intensive?
There were a variety of other sensible suggestions, like partnering with Silicon Valley Clean Energy, identifying sources of funding, explicitly considering solar options, and talking with the engineers for the local pools that are going all-electric. If the new (gas) pool were approved today, Vice Chancellor Susan Cheu estimated it would not be complete for three years. So why not spend another three months to make sure the plan is right?
Chairman Patrick Ahrens was reflective. He pushed back on what he called “performative” goals and explained why. He recalled working on a multi-year climate plan at Foothill/DeAnza many years ago when he was a student trustee on the same board he sits on now. They understood the issue and they had a budget to generate and execute ideas, but they lacked real commitment. “We encouraged everyone to carpool and we dedicated carpool lanes. And yes, we tried this and tried that, but we did not even scratch the surface on our environmental commitments. And yet we acknowledged the issue even back then. So I think we have an opportunity here and we need to meet the moment.”
Foothill’s Board of Trustees has now finally, truly, aligned behind the climate goals they passed in January of this year. That doesn’t make the work easier. But it is a necessary first step to making the goals feasible. As one faculty member said to me: “This meeting was transformational.” I am confident that everyone will be more excited about, and more on board with, the option that will be approved later this year.
Notes and References
1. You can find a video of the discussion here. The slides used for the initial part of the meeting, a presentation by district staff explaining their proposal for gas heat, are here. Public comment came next, about twenty speakers, followed by discussion among the trustees and others.
Current Climate Data
Global impacts (July 2023), US impacts (August 2023), CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
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