Several members of the Ohio State community testified at a virtual public hearing Tuesday night to discuss the university’s proposed $278 million plan to construct a combined heat and power plant on campus, made possible by the university’s partnership with energy companies.
The forum — the second public hearing hosted this summer by the Ohio Power Siting Board — included testimonies from nearly 50 individuals, the majority of whom cited the detrimental health and climate risks of the proposal. Others advocated for the adoption of the proposal, referencing potential job growth and a reported decline in carbon emissions if the plant is constructed.
According to Ohio State’s proposal application, the combined heat and power plant will produce thermal energy powered by natural gas, requiring the use of fracking, a process of drilling into the earth to extract natural gas, raising many environmental concerns from members of the Ohio State community.
Ohio State first submitted an initial application for the construction of the plant to the Ohio Power Siting Board November 2019, and the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization, submitted a petition to intervene in the case in March 2020.
The proposed facility would include a main building standing 60 feet tall, cooling towers extending 27 feet off the roof and two 125-foot steel stacks, according to the Ohio Power Siting Board website. The plant would be located on a 1.18 acre parcel of university-owned land on West Campus and serve as the main source of electricity and heating for the Columbus campus.
As of 2016, the McCracken steam power plant fulfils 80 percent of campus heating needs. Most power is provided by American Electric Power through two substations on campus, with 25 percent of campus power coming from wind under a purchase power agreement, according to Ohio State’s website.
The project will reduce Ohio State’s carbon emissions by 35 percent in its first year of operations by providing energy-efficient electricity, heating and cooling, university spokesperson Dan Hedman said.
Construction was intended to begin in May, but if the Ohio Siting Power Board adopts the proposal, the facility’s opening is planned for December 2021, according to Ohio State’s website laying out the proposed plan.
Stephanie Stockar, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State, said that although she understands the urgency of reducing emissions, the proposed plant would be an improvement over the current technology for heating and energy production. She said that the new plant would provide a unique research and educational opportunity for Ohio State faculty, researchers and students.
“The CHP system will provide a hands-on experience platform to train the next generation of engineers in the area related to energy efficiency, which is of crucial importance right now,” Stockar said.
Among those in favor of the adoption of the proposal included Michael Engbert, a member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 423, headquartered in Columbus, who said the plant will provide jobs to construction workers in the area.
According to Ohio State’s application proposal for the plant, the maximum number of employees on the construction site is 150 to 175 people, which will vary each month. Approximately four permanent positions will be added to Ohio State’s operations team.
“This project will create, help families pay off mortgages, and quite frankly, to put food on the table at the end of the day,” Engbert said.
Opponents of the project, including Becca Pollard, statewide organizer for the Sierra Club said the reported reduction in carbon emissions is not as foolproof as it sounds.
Although carbon emissions may be reduced on and around Ohio State’s campus, Pollard said it’s important to consider the methane gas released during the fracking process and the transportation of the fuel to the plant — both of which occur at off-campus locations. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 34 times stronger as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.
“It’s one thing to say that you’re reducing your emissions on site, but it’s another thing to actually look at the whole cradle-to-grave impacts of the gas industry,” Pollard said.
Cheryl Johncox, alumna of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences and organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fossil Fuels campaign, called for an additional hearing that would allow incoming Ohio State students to voice their opinions on the plant. She also raised concerns about potential health risks associated with fracking.
“I can’t express enough how reckless it is for Ohio State University to propose this dirty frack gas power plant,” Johncox said. “Fracking occurs predominantly in low-income communities in Ohio with fewer resources to protect themselves.”
The impacts of fracking on human health are still being investigated, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health website. Current research suggests that fracking-related chemicals and natural gas can “travel through cracks in the rock,” contaminating underground drinking water sources.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the oil and natural gas industry is the largest industrial source of emissions of volatile organic compounds. VOCs form ground-level ozone, more commonly known as smog. Exposure to smog is linked to various health-related problems including asthma, increased emergency room visits and hospitalizations, and premature death.
VOCs from the oil and gas industry also contribute to a variety of air toxins which are known to cause cancer, according to the EPA website.
Alice Cai, a third-year in microbiology, said Ohio State contradicts the sustainability efforts it prides itself in and encourages students to partake in by advocating for the introduction of the plant on campus.
Cai said she is tired of being urged “time and time again” by the university to increase individual efforts to combat climate change — such as recycling, riding a bike, reducing plastic — when the university fails to abide by the same standards.
“How sad and frustrating is it that the same institution that asked us to make conscious decisions of our impact on the environment commits to this plant,” Cai said. “How futile is it for us to use metal straws or take the bus or take shorter showers in the face of a $278 million plant that will operate over a decade to come.”
Public opinion of Ohio State students is another factor that must be taken into consideration when the Ohio Power Siting Board makes its decision, Dennis Pales, a third-year in biology and public affairs, said.
Pales, a senator in the Undergraduate Student Government’s General Assembly, said USG passed a unanimous resolution in the 2018-2019 school year to request Ohio State achieve 100 percent renewable energy use on campus by 2050 — signifying student opposition to the construction of a plant that uses nonrenewable energy.
“Students live and make their homes in Columbus. Students make Ohio State and the university area what it is,” Pales said. “We are tired of having our voices feel like they mean nothing.”
Other testimonies referenced Mayor Ginther’s 2020 State of the City Address in February, in which he established a commitment for the city of Columbus to be carbon neutral by 2050 and rely solely on renewable energy for powering Columbus homes by 2022.
James Kelling, a third-year in forestry, fisheries and wildlife, said the city of Columbus will not be able to achieve its sustainability goals if the combined heat and power plant is brought to Ohio State’s campus.
“As an OSU student, it sickens me to see my university going against the desires of the city’s mayor and a number of students,” Kelling said.
Ultimately, several students testified that their love for Ohio State motivates them to fight against the adoption of the plant, a move that Elizabeth Roka, a third-year in political science and geography, said contradicts the curriculum she was taught in courses surrounding climate change.
“It was at OSU that I was taught about the adverse, irreversible effects of methane, CO2 and other harmful chemicals released from burning natural gas,” Roka said. “And it was at OSU that I learned if we’re going to prevent irreversible damage to the environment for my generation, for my children’s generation, we need to stop the burning of fossil fuels.”
Moving forward, the Ohio Siting Power Board will schedule a vote on the proposal, which Matt Butler, spokesperson for the board said could be months away, as there is no set timeline.
Once a decision is made, both parties — in this case the Sierra Club and Ohio State — have 30 days to file a request for a rehearing, or reconsideration, if either party is unhappy with all or part of the board’s decision, Butler said.
If the board reconsiders the decision, and either party is still unsatisfied, Butler said the party has 60 days to file an appeal with the Supreme Court of Ohio.
The university’s proposal application can be viewed here.