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Energy Partners CEO says partnership won’t compromise sustainability for profit

Ohio State Energy Partners CEO Serdar Tufekci says OSEP will never create a project using coal as its fuel. Ris Twigg | Assistant Photo Editor

Serdar Tufekci’s first Ohio State office was in the windowless basement of the Baker Systems Engineering building, back when he was a graduate student in 1994. But 24 years later, he sits in an office in the same building with windows on the fourth floor — now as the CEO of Ohio State Energy Partners.

Since August 2017, Tufekci has been leading the university’s newest “P3,” or public-private partnership, created following a deal between Ohio State, French-based energy conglomerate Engie and infrastructure investment firm Axium. The partnership has various sustainability goals, such as cutting emissions by 25 percent in one decade.

The company plans to reach that marker — and then some — by decreasing the university’s reliance on its current energy grid, a system owned and operated by American Electric Power that pulls energy from coal, natural gas, solar and wind power.

“What we’re trying to do on campus is minimize the reliance on the grid and generate [energy] on campus,” Tufekci said. “Whatever we do here is trailblazing.”

“The grid itself is like a giant pool where the generators, coal plants, [natural] gas, wind or solar [energy] pour water into the pool,” Tufekci said. “We users are the tap at the bottom and we get a mix of what’s in the pool.”

Under Ohio State’s current energy system, every time somebody flips a light switch or drinks from a water fountain on campus, that energy primarily comes from fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, making it difficult the university from achieving its sustainability goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Ohio State becoming carbon neutral would mean it absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide it produces.

A microgrid, however, would allow Ohio State to have more control over what sources of energy are being used and how much of that energy goes to which building, Tufekci said. Additionally, OSEP plans on investing in clean energy resources like rooftop solar panels on campus, among other things.

OSEP’s plan to implement a microgrid system on campus would use what the company calls the “Engie Digital Platform,” a series of smart meters that would provide publicly available live data about the type and amount of energy being used in each building.

You’ll never hear us come with a project — which may have a fantastic financial return — but it’s using coal as its fuel. We’ll never develop a project like that. — Serdar Tufekci, CEO of Ohio State Energy Partners

Tufekci said the way the current grid system works is based on basic supply-and-demand principles. If a building needs lighting, energy is pushed to that building — continuously.

But within campus, energy-use trends see major peaks and valleys as day turns to night. With the current supply-and-demand model, the same amount of capacity must be built in to supply a building at times of both high- and low-energy demand, which means some energy is wasted.

The “Engie Digital Platform” is set to be completed in four years and will allow for better energy planning and scheduling decisions to be made by OSEP and will inform future efficiency designs in a more fine-tuned manner, Tufekci said.

“I realize this is easier said than done and will take years or decades to get done. I’m not suggesting we can be off the grid in 10 years. I think it might sound too ambitious, at least in the next five to 10 years,” he said. “But we can manage our energy consumption and planning and resources much more efficiently by doing things right here on campus.”

Listen: The Lantern interview with Ohio State Energy Partners CEO Serdar Tufekci

In addition to the microgrid, Tufekci added there are two other strategies OSEP is using to meet the university’s sustainability goal of a 25 percent energy reduction by 2025.

One approach requires OSEP to divide the campus energy system into two components: utility systems — such as boiler plants and energy distribution networks — and buildings.

“We split it into two because the skills and experiences required in each are quite different,” Tufekci said. “And we’re tapping into the right people for the right job.”

Another approach focuses on updating software to increase efficiency as well as creating awareness on campus.

Tufekci made the primary goals of the partnership clear.

OSEP has publicly committed to focusing on a long-term vision rather than a project-by-project approach. During a Board of Trustees meeting on April 6, Tufekci’s presentation stated that OSEP is “completely aligned with the university’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.”

“We don’t come up with projects or ideas that don’t solve the 2050 target,” Tufekci said. “You’ll never hear us come with a project — which may have a fantastic financial return — but it’s using coal as its fuel. We’ll never develop a project like that.”

OSEP will be launching its website, ohiostateenergypartners.com, later this week. The site will have more information about current and upcoming projects, including the $50 million Energy Advancement and Innovation Center.

Tufekci said students, faculty and staff will have the opportunity to provide input on the center before the end of the semester in a town-hall discussion, although the overall idea behind the center is already summarized in a five-page document OSEP submitted to the Board.

Correction, 4/17: this article previously stated Serdar came back to Ohio State 14 years later. In fact, he came back 24 years later. 

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