Sustainability and climate action at UT Austin : University Lands research project and a potential timeline for progress
I am a Graduate Research Assistant for the Center for Sustainable Development working on the University Lands project under the Green-Fee, a student fee-funded source of money for special sustainability-oriented projects. I share the role of project lead with Mark Reid, a Master’s candidate in Energy and Earth Resources in the Jackson School of Geosciences. We have been researching and organizing our ideas since September of 2017 under the guidance of our faculty advisers, Richard Chuchla, Robert Paterson, and Jake Wegmann and our boss Sarah Wu. The goal of this project is to identify economically viable and beneficial actions for offsetting, sequestering, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are compatible with current practices on University Lands, which are the surface and mineral interests in West Texas benefiting the Permanent University Fund of the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M System. Last year, around $600 million came from the oil and gas fund, with almost half going directly to the University of Texas at Austin (Satija and Watkins, 2017). Thus, the fossil fuel industry’s success is largely credited for many of the opportunities and successes at UT Austin. However, as a public institution in a time where concerns about emissions and climate change are growing, University Lands is beginning to include renewable energy as a contributor to that funding. This report investigates sustainability and environmental and climate action at UT Austin and compares the experiences with two peer universities, Boston University and the University of Virginia. It draws upon successes and challenges at the universities to apply lessons to UT Austin. I then explain my Green Fee-funded research project and its progress so far, concentrating on solar energy and wind energy in particular. This report explores the potential for a fossil fuel-oriented university to use its own lands for fossil fuel mitigation. It asks how this University Lands Green Fee-funded research project and other initiatives at UT Austin compare to other universities’ sustainability and climate action initiatives. The report questions: “Can UT Austin use what we find to identify ideas to reduce and offset emissions from University Lands over decades to eventually end fossil fuel use altogether?” In addition, “how does producing renewable energy on these lands fit into reducing fossil fuel use?” Lastly, “how will the research project be used and built upon by UT Austin in the years to come?” The report finds that UT could benefit from more transparent decision-making and should use its ties to energy production as an advantage to become a university leader in sustainability. Additionally, UT would benefit in further connecting research to action. This study shows that wind energy production in the West Texas counties is already cost-effective and that solar has a lot of room to grow, with some questions remaining in reaction to federal policies. A carbon tax or carbon credit scheme in the future would make renewable energy more desirable and profitable. UT Austin researchers in the years to come should build upon our research about renewable energy, methane controls, and other methods and identify specific projects that could reduce emissions and increase profits on University Lands.