Oberlin Electricity is Nearly 90% Renewable

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Photo by Walter Novak

Did you know the power supply serving the City of Oberlin will be 89% renewable by 2017? Joint ventures in hydro and wind projects and multiple power purchase agreements (PPAs) in landfill gas generation, hydro, and wind make Oberlin’s power supply almost completely powered by renewable sources. Currently, the electricity portfolio for the entire City of Oberlin hovers around 86% renewable!

Oberlin has been touted as a sustainability leader for a long time, but this is one concrete example of this leadership that sets Oberlin apart from many other places. “Oberlin has become a leader in sustainability for other towns in Ohio,” said City of Oberlin’s Energy Services and Sustainability Initiatives Manager, Doug McMillan. “For perspective, the last percent I saw for the National Grid average was 12 percent.”

The College purchases electricity from Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System (OMLPS), which allows us to work together towards our shared goals. The College has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2025, while the City has pledged to be climate positive by 2050. The College electric supply incorporates the already green portfolio of OMLPS and enhanced by four solar arrays throughout our College campus.  As a result, the College’s electricity supply is almost entirely renewable! In 2012, the College installed the 2.27 MW solar array. This array was designed to supply the college about 12% of its electricity usage.

As for the City, with the combination of the PPAs for renewable energy purchasing, energy efficiency projects, and the College contributions of installing a large solar array and converting the heating plant from coal to natural gas, the community has HALVED its carbon emissions in three years. In 2007, the City of Oberlin produced 158, 206 MT CO2e (87,300 tons of emissions of that was from electricity); in 2012, total emissions were 113,832 MT CO2e (62,424 from electricity); in 2015, total emissions were 56,866 MT CO2e(11,691 from electricity). This is a dramatic progress. For context: in the year 2000, Oberlin College’s emissions were around 50,417 tons of CO2e. Fifteen years later, the entire City of Oberlin, including the College, emissions were only that much more than the College’s alone at the start of Y2K.

Oberlin’s renewable energy comes from various sources; the largest source is landfill gas at 55% followed by hydropower at 24%. Oberlin’s electric renewable power portfolio includes methane gas generation from three projects in Ohio, hydro power from six hydroelectric plants on the Ohio River, wind power from two projects in Ohio, and the 2.27 MW solar project at Oberlin College. Most of our power is located in the State of Ohio. OMLPS is a member of a consortium of municipal utilities, called American Municipal Power (AMP). AMP communities join together to complete projects for their home communities that wouldn’t be cost-effective or feasible if these cities were on their own. Learn more about the specific projects and their locations, AMP, and OLMPS at: http://www.cityofoberlin.com/city-government/departments/omlps/environmental-strategies/.

One project feature is the Meldahl and Green Up Hydro Power Dams in the Ohio River. When phase II of the hydro power purchase agreements at the Meldahl and Greenup dams are completed in 2017, our power will continue to hover at this level (~89%) until the city council of Oberlin reaches a decision on the next step of the process. Eventually the current PPAs for renewable electric resources will expire and new contracts will need to be filled. Once the PPAs expire, Oberlin will be able to invest in new projects, which gives us some flexibility into the future.

One challenge to having excess renewable power is during the months when energy use is especially low. “In the Fall and the Spring, when there isn’t as much heating and cooling, we have an excess of energy and we have to sell it back to the grid,” said McMillan. The final 10 percent of conventional grid electricity left over provides the flexibility in managing the power supply needs.

While Oberlin’s electricity grid is largely renewable, the City and College both have work to do to get closer to stated reduction goals. This is where individual behaviors, efficiency, advanced technologies, looking collectively at community assets and energy loads, and community conversations come into play. There is great work happening on this front with the Oberlin Project, the College’s Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) Research Team, the recently signed Resilience Commitment, and much more.

“The easiest part is behind us,” said executive director of The Oberlin Project, Sean Hayes. “A renewable-powered grid is only a part of our larger goal to climate positive by 2050.”

As part of the Oberlin Project, Oberlin plans to radically improve efficiency, sharply reduce carbon emissions, and improve the local economy in the process. Specifically, by creating new sustainable businesses, educating the community, and continuing to develop the 13-acre Green Arts District which includes the Allen Memorial Art Museum renovation and construction of the new Oberlin Inn, the Peter B. Lewis Center.

Although the Oberlin Project brings excitement to the future of Oberlin’s sustainability commitment, Hayes admits that “It will never be a walk in the park and we should never be complacent with what we have.”

Although it is uncertain what the next 10 years will bring for the town of Oberlin, we now have carbon commitments and climate positivity goals to adhere to. “It’s going to be difficult to gain complete support, but it would be boring if we were all just a utopia of believers,” added Hayes laughing.

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