Gustavus and Sustainable Energy

David EideOpinions Columnist

On Feb 7, Governor Tim Walz signed a bill requiring that all Minnesota utilities produce 100% of their energy from zero-emission sources by 2040. This is a very ambitious goal and one that was sorely needed to ensure that the ongoing energy transition continues on pace. In order to achieve this goal by 2040 however, every institution in the state will need to pitch in in one way or another. This inspired me to reflect on how Gustavus has interacted with clean energy in the past and the ways in which it can potentially expand those interactions in the future to ensure that the 100% renewable goal is reached by 2040.

When I think of clean energy at Gustavus, one of the first things that come to mind is the wind turbine near the physical plant, which generates around 2 kilowatts per hour at its optimal wind speed.  While we might take the turbine for granted now, over ten years after it was originally installed, getting the turbine built was a major struggle. This demonstrates how difficult it is to make progress on clean energy when governments are unsupportive. Originally, the plan was for a significantly larger turbine to be built near the Arb, which could have provided a significant portion of the school’s energy needs.  However, due to fears of noise pollution, the county commission implemented a rule stating that turbines could not be constructed within a certain distance of residences. When Gustavus asked for an exemption from this rule, they were rejected. As a result, Gustavus instead constructed a smaller, less efficient turbine elsewhere, which I think is pretty unfortunate.

There are other, less noticeable signs of Gustavus’s commitment to clean energy. For one, there are numerous solar panels dotting the roofs of many buildings on campus, providing these buildings with sustainable energy. There are also a small number of charging stations for electric vehicles around campus which will likely prove more and more useful as electric vehicle adoption continues to increase.  Overall, I’m quite pleased with the attention already paid to clean energy by Gustavus as we seem to be doing quite a bit for a smaller-sized school. After all, it’s not as if the school and its community had to keep trying to make the wind turbine happen after the major setbacks inflicted by the county commission. They could have simply thrown up their hands and burned some more fossil fuels, but instead, they found a way to make the wind turbine work in spite of the county’s obstinance.  

As with all things, however, there are still many opportunities for improvement in the future.  One example that immediately comes to mind is expanding the amount of electric vehicle charging stations available around campus. While the fact that we have any at all is somewhat admirable, if mass adoption of EVs does occur in the near future then the campus will need far more charging stations than what is currently offered. This observation provides a neat segue into another area for improvement; it is likely that the installation of many more EV charging stations will increase the overall energy needs of the school. However, this also offers a chance to further expand renewable energy sources, perhaps in the form of several larger wind turbines or through a more developed solar network.  Gustavus is starting from a good position in regards to clean energy, it is unlikely to be difficult for us to make the full transition as it will be for some other schools who may not have our head start.

There will be some who will say that the overall goal of 100% renewable energy is an unachievable pipe dream. Those people may be correct in that it will likely be very difficult to complete the full transition in only 17 years, especially considering the intractability of certain emission sources. However, I think the mere act of setting a goal is worthwhile. Doing so provides a motivating factor to continue pushing for the adoption of renewable energy as well as possibly forestalling any backsliding that could occur as a result of unforeseen economic trends. The setting of this goal also signifies a unified government commitment to clean energy which may potentially serve to counteract occurrences, like the previously discussed county ordinance limiting wind power development. While private economic interests can push the adoption of green energy decently far, governmental regulation will likely be necessary to make it past the finish line. Ultimately, if we wish to avoid the worst-case climate scenarios we need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, meaning ambitious targets like this are crucial. Gustavus has already done a lot when it comes to clean energy, but we should always strive to do more. I have faith that the campus community will push the College to do just that.

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