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Climate Control

By square footage, U-M is the biggest research university on the planet—which is why the student group Clean Wolverines and the faculty that led them thought committing to carbon neutrality was so important.
by Susan Hutton

This is an article from the spring 2020 issue of 
LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

Adam Simon, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has focused his research on how these elements form — and where to find them. 

“Some rock contains anomalous concentrations of copper or silver or rare earth elements, and we try to figure out why,” Simon explains. “If you can understand how the deposits formed, it helps you develop exploration strategies to find new ones.” For Simon, the work is about more than just finding new deposits: He’s looking for the elements we need to transition to renewable energy.

“We’ve known about copper, gold, silver, lead, tin, iron, and mercury — what we call the seven metals of antiquity — for thousands of years, and used them at a relatively high rate,” Simon says. “Then when we rounded out the periodic table, we started to figure out what rare earth and platinum group elements can do for us. In the last ten years, my original passion for mineral deposits has perfectly aligned with our need to find new supplies of them,” he continues. “In order to build solar panels, wind turbines, and grid-scale batteries, as well as Teslas and Chevy Bolts, you need these energy-critical metals. If we are going to build the infrastructure that allows us to transition to renewable energy, we need to source them from new deposits.”

In a lot of ways, the minerals’ critical shift in future energy systems mirrors the shift in the way Simon teaches his students about them. A few years ago, he had been teaching a traditional undergraduate class that fulfilled an upper-level writing requirement, and he wondered if there was more he could do with it. “At the same time, I had a lot of students who wanted to learn about the sustainability goals U-M put in place in 2011,” he says. 

Simon dug in and got to work.

Student-Driven Data

In 2011, U-M announced a broad range of sustainability goals it would achieve by 2025. It would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 2006 levels; decrease its transportation emissions by 30 percent; and reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill by 40 percent. It formed a sustainability committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students that would make sustainability program recommendations across many areas to reduce U-M’s carbon footprint.

By 2015, there was good news to report about U-M’s transportation emissions, but progress on the other goals was less encouraging. U-M’s greenhouse gas emissions had risen by three percent, which was an increase but a relatively modest one given the university’s rapid growth. But that still meant the university now had to reduce emissions by 28 percent to reach the goal, and landfilled waste had only decreased by 1.7 percent. The university had reported an annual eight percent decrease in energy consumption, but the calculations didn’t include the health system, housing, or athletics. There was a greater awareness of sustainability issues on campus, which was a goal, but people were less likely to act in support of them. And most of the programs recommended by the sustainability committee had been only partially implemented or not implemented at all.

In the fall 2015 semester, Simon re-launched his course. Working with Peter Knoop, an app programmer and senior analyst in LSA IT, Simon developed the course into a semester-long project where students reviewed U-M’s sustainability goals, the steps the university had taken to meet them, and evaluated how much progress they’d made. “It wasn’t a shame game,” Simon says. “It was an informed assessment that said, ‘Okay, here’s where we are. How do we become carbon neutral?’”

To answer the question, students learned to use geographic information systems (GIS) to map solar and wind potential, how to price electricity, and how to calculate the emissions associated with different technologies used to generate electricity. They also studied the politics that shaped natural resources regulation and commerce and the economic factors that determined who got access to them, an approach borrowed from the social sciences known as a social license.

“The geology is relatively easy, but weighing the ethics, the history, and the politics that affect people is super hard,” Simon says. “How do you convince indigenous communities or relatively recently transplanted communities to allow the resources we need to build renewable energy infrastructure to be extracted? It can’t be done without some environmental change, no matter how small the footprint is. When you’re trying to steer the planet away from crisis, how do you determine what’s fair? They’re incredibly important questions, and we spend a lot of time considering them in the course.”
























Read the Map

At the end of the semester, instead of a paper, Simon asked the students to produce a story map: a way to present all of their data in text as maps and multimedia content. “A few students turned in their work and said, ‘We don’t want this to die,’” explains Simon. “‘We don’t want to just get a grade and have this work go live on a hard drive somewhere.’” Simon didn’t either.

Simon quickly organized a conference with the assistance of Gregg Crane, professor of English language and literature who was, at the time, the director of Program in the Environment; Chris Poulsen, professor of earth and environmental sciences and current associate dean for the natural sciences in LSA; the Office of the President; and the Office of the Provost.

In the last days of the fall 2015 semester, the students presented ways the university could become carbon neutral, what it would cost, and its social license considerations.

“I had eight students get all dressed up and present their findings to an audience that included LSA’s associate deans and the president’s counsel, and I was amazed,” Simon recalls. “I was truly amazed at how they took ownership of their research.”

Research is at the heart of what higher education can bring to the problem of climate change, says Associate Dean for the Natural Sciences Chris Poulsen. “We need to educate students so they can make informed decisions,” Poulsen says. “We also need to be an engine of research and innovation, to serve as role models and laboratories for the rest of society, and to play an important role in community engagement around climate change.”

The students’ findings drew praise for their detail and rigor, and some skepticism about whether the solutions they presented could actually work. “Until that point, everyone had been throwing around hypothetical back-of-the-envelope calculations,” Simon explains. “But these students had actually made the calculations, and used them to create a blueprint. They could tell you there are three farms within five miles of campus that have solar potential, and that if U-M bought them and put this many kilowatts of solar there and there, the installations could generate all the electricity the university needs. The students had come up with recipes, and we could tweak them.”

After the conference, Simon met Susan Fancy, program manager for technology and commercialization at the College of Engineering, who was then working at U-M’s Energy Institute. She suggested that a similar student project could help the city of Ann Arbor reach its sustainability goals. In the summer of 2017, the students investigated the solar and battery potential of more than 200 city-owned properties, such as city hall, fire stations, parking structures, and the landfill, and presented their findings to the city that fall.

In December 2017, the students’ work became part of the foundation on which Ann Arbor based its commitment to making its municipal operations carbon neutral by 2035 — a goal the city revised in November 2019 by committing to make the whole community carbon neutral by 2030. The students’ work was part of a $1-billion bond for improving facilities for the Ann Arbor Public Schools that passed last year. Big things were underway regionally, and Simon’s students were ready to bring them to U-M, too.
























Clean Wolverines

The group of students who had worked on the Ann Arbor summer project grew into the Clean Wolverines, students from across campus working to reduce U-M’s carbon footprint. Lydia Whitbeck (B.S. ’19) was one of its earliest members and is now a project coordinator on the Presidential Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN). “Initially we focused on projects to reduce carbon emissions, but we eventually grew to develop different pathways toward carbon neutrality,” she says. “There also was a lot of focus on making sure that our work was co-produced, meaning that we engaged with key stakeholders throughout our analysis process to ensure that key people in the university were involved with our work.”

“There were students from many different majors working on a diverse set of projects centered on reducing U-M’s emissions,” says Grant Faber (Ross ‘19), a graduate student in U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability and one of the first Clean Wolverines. “I started a team of students in 2017 to investigate power purchase agreements (PPAs) as a way to reduce the carbon intensity of U-M’s energy use. PPAs have been used to reduce emissions at other universities, often in a financially viable way. There didn’t seem to be any reason U-M couldn’t do it as well.”

The Clean Wolverines worked to reach carbon neutrality at U-M from multiple fronts: from economics to landscape architecture to behavioral psychology. And as the group’s members continued to work on the problem, they continued to find more solutions. They spoke at monthly Board of Regents meetings, presented to external advisory boards, and talked to faculty, staff, and alumni. After many more months, Simon says, “We had a crazy idea. Why don’t we have another conference that shines the spotlight on Michigan?”

In April 2018, “Toward Carbon Neutrality at the University of Michigan, 2025 and Beyond” drew sustainability leaders from Big Ten universities, regional utility companies, municipal governments, and international businesses. Simon and the Clean Wolverines didn’t shy away from laying bare the facts, even if it meant having some tough conversations. Graph after graph measured all kinds of sustainability indicators at Big Ten universities and peer institutions. “We ranked last compared to every peer,” Simon says. “We knew that if we didn’t start to do something, we were going to get left behind.”

Then in October 2018, at his annual Leadership Breakfast, President Mark Schlissel committed to putting U-M on a path toward carbon neutrality. “I was ecstatic. I was over the moon,” Simon says. “It was a huge announcement, and I was thrilled that many of the students we’d worked with realized they had a part in that.

“The effort at U-M was made with a lot of student sweat equity, and it was never just about protests and telling people that they are bad,” Simon says. “It was, ‘Hey, we’ve come up with a range of scenarios. We’ve got scenario A and scenario B.’ That’s what we’re teaching — that there is not just one answer. There are a multitude of ways to get to carbon neutrality, so now let’s sit down together and work through them.” 

The ambiguity and uncertainty that come with climate change are some of the hardest parts of the problem. Sara Soderstrom wants to understand how we can better handle them, alone and together.

Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies and Program in the Environment Sara Soderstrom studies how people, alone and within organizations, respond to climate change. “I would say my research fits in three different areas,” Soderstrom says. “In organizations, we look at how people influence others to make sustainability-related decisions, and how they create groups to work on these issues together. We also look at the way organizations work together, how they can build successful partnerships, and how these relationships can change over time. Finally, we look at the way people make sense of the uncertainties concerning climate change, how they talk about sustainability and climate change, and how this affects the way others organize around these issues.“

At U-M, the carbon neutrality efforts have been particularly exciting because of the way they have brought people and expertise together to work on something targeted,” Soderstrom continues. “The university is a really interesting microcosm for considering different sustainability solutions and moving them forward. And there are groups of students and faculty who are pushing and bringing us much further than we would have come without their voices.”

Including a multitude of interdisciplinary voices to combat climate change is critical if you’re going to collect unbiased data on which decisions are based and understand how applying them will affect different communities and populations. “Sustainability solutions start to work when we get more potential paths forward and we really start to evaluate their pros and cons using an interdisciplinary approach,” she says. “We need people working together on these problems with different perspectives and learning from each other so that we can move forward with various scenarios that we think are the most likely to help us out of this.”


Images created by Becky Sehenuk Waite
Release Date: 10/23/2019
Category: Faculty; Research; Students
Tags: LSA; Organizational Studies; Natural Sciences; LSA Magazine; Susan Hutton; Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Adam C. Simon; Chris Poulsen; Sara Soderstrom; Becky Sehenuk Waite