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State Legislature funds feasibility study to research potential overhaul for campus heating system

The steam plant produces all of its heat with natural gas which is a significant contributor to the climate footprint of the campus

The Steam Plant provides heat on Western Washington University’s campus by burning natural gas to boil water. A feasibility study has been funded to explore ways to make the steam plant more efficient and less dependent on fossil fuels. // Photo by Jacob O’Donnell

A convening of students, faculty and staff knowledgeable about the campus heating system and potential alternatives to its current fuel source of natural gas kicked off a newly-funded feasibility study last Friday.

Western Washington University's Sustainability Action Plan calls for energy efficiency upgrades at the Steam Plant, according to Alex Ramel, the Climate Policy Advisor at, a Seattle-based environmental advocacy organization, and the representative for the 40th Legislative District.

The State Legislature is granting Western $450,000 to research ways to reduce the energy use and climate impact of the Steam Plant, according to Western Today.  

This heating process is currently the biggest single contributor to the total greenhouse gas emissions from Western’s main campus, emitting slightly less than a half of its climate-warming carbon, said Paul Cocke, Western’s director of University Communications, in an email.  

As long as Western heats its campus with natural gas it will not achieve carbon neutrality, according to Ramel.  

“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. 

The steam plant burns natural gas, a fossil fuel, to produce steam that is sent to each building through tunnels and pipes, according to the student-led “Updating Heating Systems for a Sustainable Future” report completed last December.

One of the focuses of the study will be the exploration of heat sources other than burning natural gas, Cocke said. 

“Facilities Management’s strategic goals include developing the next generation of carbon neutral strategies, and the feasibility study is an important step in knowing what is possible for the steam plant [in the] future,” he said.  

The 2017 Sustainability Action Plan calls for Western’s campus to be carbon neutral by 2035, meaning that whatever it emits will have to be offset by investing in clean energy projects off campus, according to the plan. 

Noah Didehbani, fourth-year Sustainable Business Major and co-author of the student-led report on the Steam Plant said that the sheer cost of purchasing carbon offsets is one of the key reasons why the university should invest in an overhaul of its current steam-driven heating system. 

“That’s not something they’re going to want to keep incurring, and those costs are actually going to be increasing if they do want to be carbon neutral and if they don’t start to change the system,” Didehbani said. 

According to the student-led report, the stream-driven heating system already costs Western over $600,000 a year in natural gas plus $1.9 million to $2.8 million a year in upkeep. The plant was built in 1946 and the equipment is aging, the report said. 

The strain on the system and the emissions from the plant will only get worse as the new dorm, Alma Clark Glass Hall, and two new science and engineering buildings get added to the heating network, Didehbani said. 

David Van Tulder, a third-year Environmental Policy student and co-author of the student-led report, said that climate, not cost, is his foremost reason why the feasibility study needs to be done.

“I think it’s imperative,” Van Tulder said. “We need to get to a low carbon future, we need to become more environmentally conscious and friendly as a university.”

One of his biggest concerns is the methane that gets leaked and emitted from natural gas, he said. 

“Natural gas is one of, if not the biggest source of pollution here at Western,” Van Tulder said. 

Methane gas is between 84 and 86 times as efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, according to the United Nations Economic Commission of Europe. The total greenhouse gases emitted by the Steam Plant each year are equivalent to about 10,500 tons of carbon dioxide, Cocke said. 

Although the university Administration and Facilities Management will be in charge of executing the study, Ramel recommended a deep dive on the potential for Western to be a key part of a district heating system. District heating systems are similar to the current system at Western, with one facility supplying heat to many buildings, but they can be much larger and powered by climate-friendly sources of energy, he said. 

The district heating system in Copenhagen, Denmark was started in the 1960s and now powers about 90% of the buildings in the city, Ramel said. A similar system would be significant for the City of Bellingham because heating buildings, largely done by burning natural gas, is the single largest contributor to climate change by the community, he said. 

Heat pumps, which extract heat from substances by using differences in temperature between a coolant and the object, could produce heat from underground, seawater and even sewage, Ramel said. 

Another critical element of the feasibility study will be finding ways to transition away from steam and towards hot water, according to Ramel.  

“Anything we want to do to switch Western’s ability to heat the buildings on campus with anything other than fossil fuels almost certainly requires switching to a hot water district heating system rather than a steam based one,” he said. 

Van Tulder explained that hot water is more energy efficient for heating than steam because steam has thousands of times more surface area than liquid water, which causes it to lose its heat more rapidly as it’s transmitted to its surroundings. Since it takes less energy to generate than steam, it is more feasible to produce the needed heat with non-fossil fuel forms of energy like electricity generated with renewable energy sources, he said. 

The University of British Columbia started its feasibility study to look at ways to transition its heating system to hot water in 2006, said David Woodson, managing director of Energy and Water Services at the University of British Columbia in an email. The continuing transition was mostly complete by 2017, Woodson said. 

“The sooner we start, the more likely Western will be able to have net zero emissions by 2035 without significant carbon offset costs,” Didehbani said. 

Student involvement and input should be a big emphasis in this process, Didehbani said. 

“It’s difficult because the university doesn’t want to you know, like jeopardize its reputation or anything by saying ‘Oh yeah, we have an outdated steam plant that uses a lot of natural gas,’ but at the same time, how else are you going to get students fired up, you know? How else are you going to get students to want to speak up and say ‘Now’s the time to start taking action,” Didehbani said.

Jacob O'Donnell

Jacob O’Donnellis a junior majoring in environmental policy and public relations.  He is currently a campus news reporter for The Front and typically writes about issues related to the environment and social justice. He can be reached at


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