Skip to main content

Climate and Sustainability Town Halls

Past Town Halls

Strategic Energy Plan, May 31, 2022

In support of the climate neutrality goals, the University of California is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by reducing energy use and switching to clean energy supplies. UC San Diego has built one of the world’s the most advanced microgrids, which is key to creating a carbon neutral campus. The microgrid provides a flexible, resilient, reliable, secure energy distribution system that is capable of generating approximately 85% of the electricity used on campus annually. Power is provided from several sources the campus’ 30-megawatt cogeneration plant, 2.8-megawatt energy fuel cell and 2.4 megawatts of solar arrays. The microgrid also has 2.5 MW/5 MWH of Battery Energy Storage and 8 million gallons of Thermal Energy Storage.

We answered many of the questions posed during registration and through the Zoom Q&A feature below. Note: We consolidated similar questions to provide comprehensive answers.

Emissions and Energy Consumption

How can you call keeping emissions/consumption “flat” (modulo COVID of 2020 and 2021) an “accomplishment” when the international consensus, California’s own goals such as SB100 are to cut emissions by about 50% by 2030 from 2010 levels?

Maintaining a flat/decreasing emissions footprint during this period of rapid campus growth with requirements of increased ventilation during COVID-19 is notable and has been achieved due to the various energy efficiency projects and measures that have been implemented. Yet, we recognize the need to cut emissions further. SB100 sets a goal for renewable electricity and allows for the use of biogas as an emission reduction. As part of our current strategy, biogas could potentially reduce scope 1 emissions by 40%, which would supplement our current solar photovoltaic onsite and any other technology we may employ, such as concentrate solar thermal or deep geothermal.

What was UCSD's gross energy use annually vs. generation for 2021?

UC San Diego generates on average 80% of its electricity needs.

What are the top five sources of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to UCSD?

The top five sources of greenhouse gas emissions are from the cogeneration plant gas turbines and boilers, commuters, air travel and fleet fuel use.

What are UC(SD) plans and actions to verifiably reduce greenhouse gases emissions? Why are retirement plan options that exclude fossil fuel investments not clearly advertised? Why are fossil fuel funding sources not yet disclosed? It is well known that such funding corrupts research, c.f. funding from the Tobacco industry.

UC San Diego, along with all the UC campuses, go through a third-party verification process for greenhouse gas reporting. UC Investments uses a Sustainable Investment Framework and specific sustainability language with the overall investment policy that references that framework. UC Investment Office manages the stranded asset risks associated with thermal coal, oil and gas by not investing (pdf) in companies that own any amount of fossil fuel reserves (unless such companies are held in commingled accounts).

How can UCSD keep justifying making 10 to 20 million dollars of payments per year to fossil fuel companies, such as SDG&E/Sempra, which just increases the economic and political power of those companies (Sempra is massively increasing fossil extraction from Permian basin) and perpetuates environmental injustice by poisoning communities at the frontlines of extraction and also damages the biosphere permanently by increasing greenhouse gases?

Environmental and social justice issues are important when considering climate action planning and projects to implement. Recently approved language for the UC Sustainable Practices Policy will require that climate justice be considered in future planning and projects.

UCSD claims to be a leader in climate action but campus greenhouse gas emissions have not gone down in the past decade. As a system, UC is still emitting ~1 million tons of CO2 every year from burning fossil gas for electricity generation and for heating/cooling. To be a real leader, the UC must drop the inadequate promise of carbon offsets and make a plan for decarbonization now. What is UCSD's plan to lead the effort for UC-wide decarbonization?

UC San Diego has prioritized direction action to reduce energy use and keep carbon emissions from increasing during a tremendous period of growth. In addition to tangible projects, such as energy retrofits and operational optimization projects, the campus leads in other ways. For instance, the current Global Leadership Council Chair is UC San Diego faculty member Fonna Forman, Energy Services Governing Board and Sustainable Steering Committee member is Vice Chancellor Gary Matthews, and the Systemwide Climate Change Working Group and Energy Technical Committee includes various UC San Diego staff.

Scope 3 Emissions

With current infrastructure, what portion of cars could be offset by people switching to electric vehicles, trolley, bus, bike, etc.? What can we do to increase the number of people choosing one of these options rather than driving personal combustion cars?

Increasing average vehicle occupancy is one of the lowest cost ways to reduce emissions, vehicle miles traveled and infrastructure costs. Increasing carpooling is part of the equation, as is encouraging transit ridership; the empty seats already arriving on campus each day in personal vehicles is an underutilized resource. Through Triton Commuter Club, UC San Diego is incentivizing these shared transportation choices. Regional investment in and improvements to transit service quality (speed, reliability and routing improvements) will make riding significantly more attractive. We collaborate closely with MTS on these issues and are leading signal improvements on and off campus that will help

UC San Diego community members can benefit from different EV Incentives.

When will the university again arrange discounts for students, faculty and staff on the purchase or lease of a new or used electric vehicle?  

We are waiting for the supply demand imbalance to correct. For those who were with the University five or six years ago, we went out to a variety of different suppliers of electric vehicles, and they basically gave us below fleet prices for individuals, including students, faculty and staff. Some of the prices were so low, such as $80/month. The chips shortage that is well known, as well as the reduction of manufacturing supply and the tremendous new increase in petroleum products have put the EV manufacturers in position where they can sell a vehicle over list price. Many people anticipate that by the end of this year, the beginning of next year will be when the supply demand imbalance levels itself. 

Do the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UC San Diego research fleet vessels count as part of the "vehicle fleet?" What is UC San Diego specifically doing to support emission reductions from the research fleet?

The vehicle fleet that is tracked for greenhouse gas emissions reporting does not include the research fleet vessels. Consistent with other UC campuses, UC San Diego only reports on vehicles managed by UC San Diego Fleet Services.


Is biogas green?

Yes, its use emits greenhouses gases that would ultimately end up in the atmosphere (non-anthropogenic).  The biogas UC has secured was previously being flared.  By capturing it and injecting it into the pipeline, it displaces fossil fuel natural gas.

According to the California Energy Commission: “Biomethane is a renewable natural gas produced from decaying organic matter such as wastewater treatment sludge, food waste, animal manures, landfill gas, dead trees, and municipal solid waste through a process called anaerobic digestion.”

What is preventing us from going higher than 40% RNG and switching to renewable natural gas, increasing percentage external electricity (from 100% renewable sources)? What about the external grid would have to change to make it reliable enough?

Biogas volumes are limited by supply available.

Cogeneration Plant Plans

What are the plans and timeline to retire the cogeneration plant, move away from natural gas use and move towards electrification of campus heating and cooling? Is it possible to retire the cogeneration plant early?

The early and necessary steps we need to take to decarbonize are already happening; these include in-depth studies and preliminary feasibility analyses. We are exploring all possible technologies, with heat recovery chillers being examined first. The initial review determined that heat recovery chilling could only provide about 60% of our high-temperature thermal needs, without the resiliency of self-generation at the Central Utilities Plant.

We continue to explore other potential technologies, including hydrogen, concentrated solar thermal, deep geothermal and others that could align with the thermal demands of our campus. Once we determine a technically, financially and operationally feasible strategy, we can assess different timelines, including one that is accelerated to recognize the resources that would be necessary to achieve it. If financing were not an issue, plans to retire the cogen plan sooner could be evaluated.

What is the projected cost estimate for retiring the cogeneration plant in favor of distributed heating systems? In the interim, have there been any thoughts on capturing the CO2 from the cogeneration plant's flue gas for sale or use on campus?

Costs for transitioning from cogeneration (electricity and thermal energy for heating hot water) to distributed heating systems that rely on 100% imported power are estimated to increase energy costs by tens of millions of dollars per year. This does not consider the additional intensive thermal energy needed processes for research, such as sterilization.


I understand that high-temperature water uses a ridiculous amount of electricity. What about using passive solar with thermal concentration?

High-temperature water (HTW) can be created with the use of equipment called heat exchangers that allow the transfer of energy, in our case, from steam to water. At UC San Diego, we currently do not use electricity to generate HTW. We recover waste heat from gas turbine exhaust gases during electricity generation, deeming it a cogeneration cycle. Steam could be generated in other ways, including natural gas boilers, electric boilers and concentrated solar photovoltaic. We will study concentrated solar thermal with assistance from Professor Coimbra. It has the potential to offer a better a solution than heat recovery chilling or rooftop PV.

I'm thrilled that UCSD has such a large investment in solar at 2.4 MW of capacity. Are there any plans to expand solar on campus and take advantage of the many rooftops that do not yet have panels? What prohibits the changeover to 100% solar?

UC San Diego currently has a 2.4-megawatt solar network that includes an array of rooftop, carport and ground mounted systems, including several integrated with advanced energy systems. However, we have not utilized all rooftop spaces. UC San Diego performed detailed analyses in 2019 for potential additional rooftop systems, reviewing many criteria including roof age, condition, structural integrity and shading from trees and adjacent structures. The university continually analyzes the economic viability of adding new solar and its necessary energy storage. It’s important to remember that institutional solar is not the same as residential solar, especially given our intense healthcare and research needs for stable, reliable energy that never shuts off. It’s more cost effective to meet electricity needs either through our cogeneration plant or through purchases via the UC Wholesale Power Program, which is currently green and on track to be carbon-free, rather than installing more rooftop solar. However, we plan to revisit our evaluations this year to ensure analyses are still relevant.


Does UCSD have the will and expertise to experimentally develop Thorium reactors until ongoing research on fusion reactors pans out?

Given the sensitivity and multiple things that would be needed to consider related to nuclear power, we recognize the great advancement in micro-reactors. They supply the high-density heat the campus requires. However, the industry would need to research and develop the technology more thoroughly before UC San Diego would engage.


Earlier, it was stated that the natural gas cogeneration plant allowed better campus-level local resiliency to still support running research/medical buildings during emergency/critical situations, allowing "islanding" and supply to SDG&E. Since the cogeneration plant will be retired in 2032 and it seems unclear what the local replacement plant/systems will be (biogas + ???), how much local resiliency will be lost? What should researchers/medical staff be aware of in future planning? With the Regents' push for use of electric heat and equipment to the maximum extent possible in our new projects, how do you anticipate our microgrid, and the San Diego grid in general, will handle the increased electrical demand? Can the existing/projected diesel emergency generators carry the load?

If the cogeneration units are retired, we would be reliant on the SDG&E grid. UC San Diego has 2.5 MW/5 MWh Advanced Energy Storage to aid in peak shaving and may also assist in an emergency by discharging about 5% of our total campus peak load. Existing diesel generators only serve emergency/life safety loads, which account for only 31% of our total campus peak load. Beyond the battery and emergency diesel generators, resiliency would be lost.

Carbon Offsets

Can you please elaborate on the necessity of relying on carbon offsets to reach the 2025 carbon neutrality goal and how UCSD will transition away from using them? Does the group believe that carbon offsets count as actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? A profound injustice is that UCSD continues to pay significant monies to the fossil companies that are bent on continuing the extraction of fossil fuels, which harm marginalized communities the most. By continuing to pay them ("because we bought offsets!"), UCSD is buttressing their political and economic power. This is the logic behind the idea that one ton of CO2 prevented in Darfur via offsets is not the same as one ton prevented here by decarbonization. True justice would be to go carbon free.

UC San Diego, along with all ten UC campuses, remains committed to the carbon neutrality goal of scope 1 and scope 2 emissions by 2025. We follow the approach, as outlined in the UC Sustainable Practices Policy that direct action towards carbon reduction should be prioritized with carbon offsets being a transitional approach. To the ends of meeting the 2025 goal and policy, carbon offsets represent a part of our strategy until we can determine the best path forward for decarbonization. For the existing campus greenhouse gas emissions, we continue to evaluate all decarbonization technologies to continue to find the best solution to serve the campuses 24/7/365 needs for resilient and high-density energy needs¾that are also efficient and cost effective.

In the meantime, UC has set forth a path for procuring high quality offsets. High-quality offsets represent real, additional, quantifiable, durable and enforceable emissions reduction or carbon removal off-site, that have undergone third-party verification—PLUS an additional rigorous UC screening per UC Policy. A systemwide Offset Technical Committee has been charged with providing recommendations for the purchasing process, a process in which is transparent, fiscally responsible, scalable, integrates DEIJ, leverages internal expertise of students and faculty and provide opportunities to learn, iterate and continually improve. UC initiated offset projects; those that are directly tied to UC research or campus are given priority. Given all of this, the approach of meeting our goals can and should change as we deem other decarbonation strategies appropriate and feasible.

Building Design/Operation

Many campus buildings do not have openable windows, despite the mild San Diego climate, the known health benefits of natural ventilation and the high energy draw of air handling systems. What is being done to re-envision the architectural design of campus dorms, classrooms, meeting spaces and offices to take advantage of the mild climate and to reduce energy use?

Most of the campus energy use occurs in the laboratory research and clinical medical facilities. Due to safety regulations, airflow rates are strictly managed in these buildings and UC San Diego has been a leader in the efficient design and operation of these systems. Over $100M in energy efficiency retrofits have been executed since 2009 to optimize airflow and temperature control in older campus lab buildings and provide energy efficient strategies, like CO2 control and occupancy sensing, for non-critical spaces.

UC San Diego’s location in mild-temperate southern California affords us other unique sustainable operation opportunities at which our campus also excels. Below are some examples, but more can be found at 2021 UC San Diego Annual Sustainability Report.

  • Economizer Mode for air-handling systems that are designed for recirculated air (non-lab) allows system to draw in as much outdoor air into the system to meet thermal demands.
  • Daylighting provides as much natural light in occupied spaces.
  • Activating open outdoor spaces that our community can work, learn, and socialize in, reduces energy needed for lighting, comfort heating and cooling while people are outdoors. Activating our open space around campus also increases health and well-being for our community members.


Can timers be used for lighting to conserve energy? What is the plan for LED retrofits?

A variety of lighting controls exist around campus, depending on the year the building was built and subsequent lighting upgrades. These include schedules, occupancy sensors and manual switches. Occupancy sensors are preferable to timers because they only use light when an occupant is present. Retrofitting facilities to LED technology has been prioritized in buildings based on economic payback and/or as lighting technology has reached end of life.

Health System

What are specific goals and plans to help the Health System and other camps partners to meet these requirements?

Achieving our sustainability goals takes the collective effort of everyone at UC San Diego. Staff, students and faculty from across many areas are working collaboratively to develop solutions and elevate initiatives for a more sustainable campus. For the upcoming year, goals include increasing communication about strategic energy, water and climate programs with the campus community and our campus partners and improving our online dashboards for energy, water and greenhouse gases. The communications plan launched on May 31, 2022 with a campus-wide town hall focusing on the strategic energy plan, with follow-up town halls planned. Focused follow-up meetings will also be held to give the campus community an opportunity to have detailed discussions and participation in those areas.

Clean Power Program

What exactly does "Obtain 100% clean electricity" mean considering that the plan continues to include burning methane on site? Does this mean that external electricity will come from renewables, while internal electricity (72% of total) will continue to rely on methane?

For our imported power needs, the campus has a variety of certified/verified sources of clean and renewable electricity. These include UC Clean Power Program direct access power purchasing options, power purchase agreements (PPAs) for electricity generated on and off site, and equivalent products that bundle physical electricity with the right to claim its renewable energy attributes. Our baseload electrical power needs are met onsite through the cogeneration plant and is supplemented by our fuel cell and solar photovoltaic.

Is the shift to 100% clean electricity due to the switch from SDG&E to San Diego Community Power?

The shift to 100% clean power is a part of a commitment that UC has made to provide to campuses that want to participate in the UC Clean Power Program, managed by the UC Energy Service Group and overseen by the UC Energy Governing Board.

Individual Actions

In addition to turning off lights, what else can we do on a daily basis, at work and at home, to do our part? Our suite of Green Programs offers information about how to get your office, lab or classroom certified, and tips for what you can do to become more sustainable by implementing better practices. There is a lot that can be done to be more efficient, save money and help reduce your overall environmental footprint. The Green Residence program self-assessment allows you to evaluate your current practices and gives you a score upon completion. What impact, if any, has staff working from home had on our energy consumption? 

Our energy savings on campus have been minimal, around 3%, and the reason is twofold. First, the majority of our energy consumption on campus is a direct result of ongoing research which is at approximately 70% and was maintained throughout the pandemic. And second, to enhance building safety due to the pandemic, we adjusted our building ventilation systems by increasing outside air flow and maximizing fan speeds to maximize the dilution of any airborne contaminants and reduce the possible transmission of the virus. The combined result of these two actions have offset the energy savings that we were able to realize by having the majority of campus employees and students working and learning remotely.