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Sue Lani Madsen: WWU study shows decarbonization may not pay off

There won’t be a governor’s news conference to unveil the feasibility study for decarbonizing the Western Washington University campus. Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, probably won’t feature it in his legislative newsletter, although he was awfully excited about it at the kickoff. The Department of Commerce provided the funding but “is not planning to publish the study,” according to an email from Glenn Blackmon, manager of the Energy Policy Office.

The release has been subdued and delayed because the answers were a reality check to the preferred progressive energy policy.

Ramel, who also serves as climate policy adviser for, a Seattle-based environmental advocacy organization, is pushing hard to eliminate natural gas as a fuel source for heating buildings all over Washington. He was instrumental in getting a $450,000 appropriation in the last capital budget for an engineering feasibility study on the conversion of the existing steam plant at WWU to eliminate natural gas. “It is the largest piece of Western’s carbon footprint and it is impossible for Western Washington University to meet its climate goals while it continues to do that,” Ramel said in a June 2021 kickoff article in the WWU campus newspaper.

Expectations were set by a WWU student-led policy study dated Dec. 11, 2020, which enthusiastically stated “in the long run, converting the whole campus from steam to a hot water system alone will cost $38,000,000 with an estimated simple payback of 16 years.”

The engineer cited as the source of their optimistic number confirmed he had a conversation with the students discussing general principles of design and had never seen their report, which went on to say “a possible engineering study has been suggested to investigate the more technical side of the project.”

And that was a great idea, because the students were off by a factor of more than 10. A solid team of professional engineers, architects and construction-cost estimators was hired to study what it would take to make it so. Not hypothetically, like so many of the so-called feasibility studies for decarbonization, but on a specific state university campus with an estimate based on real costs to convert a system serving real buildings from steam to hot water.

A draft dated July 21 of the Western Washington University SP084 Heating System Conversion Feasibility Study examined four options, with capital costs over 15 years ranging from $440 million to $503 million. Continuing business as usual and maintaining the existing steam systems came in at about $13 million in capital costs. And the campus will still need natural gas to meet peak loads.

Rep. Ramel and Gov. Jay Inslee were probably hoping for better numbers. What they got was a reality check, one that didn’t even include the additional electrical loads to serve an all EV state fleet per the governor’s Executive Order 21-04.

The university is still in the process of figuring out how best to proceed.

“Western relies on an over 75-year-old natural gas-fired central steam plant and distribution system to heat most of the facilities on our main campus in Bellingham,” Joyce Lopes, Western’s vice president for Business and Financial Affairs, wrote in an email. “The current system contributes to about 97% of Western’s current greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the steam plant uses antiquated systems to run the boilers that require substantial upkeep and finding both replacement parts and technicians to perform repairs has become increasingly difficult as these systems continue to age,” Lopes said.

The question of operating costs is a serious one. According to the WWU study, the 50-year life cycle cost for continuing to operate the steam system is still about 3% lower than the preferred alternative, even loading it with costs to add cooling and replace parts of aging steam systems in existing buildings.

As for replacement steam system parts, “ we can get parts within a month or so because they don’t need the chips and circuit boards,” said Larry Andrews of Andrews Mechanical. “Last commercial heat pump I tried to get was 12 to 13 months out; the higher the efficiency the longer it takes. Where we need to be focusing is insulating old buildings and gradual conversions. A lot of mechanical upgrades don’t pay back but insulation does, plus it reduces the carbon footprint.”

The logical sequel to the feasibility study would be a capital request from WWU to the Legislature for schematic design and eventual implementation. That initial number is due in September.

WWU’s official response is of course quite diplomatic. “We recognize that the State has limited investment capacity, and we look forward to discussing with legislative leaders in the coming months a multiyear plan to balance budget requests and system efficiencies with the ongoing cost of replacement and potential failures,” Lopes said in her email.

Let’s hope the Legislature is not distracted by shiny ideas and visions of a district heating system that don’t pencil out. And they might just want to consider the cost impact of decisions at WWU extrapolated to campuses all across the state. They now have an engineering study capturing real, technical data to better inform broad energy policy. Here’s hoping they use it instead of burying the inconvenient truth.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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