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Shake down the thunder from smog

Austin Lagomarsino and Dan Reitz | Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Over the past 30 years, the “Green Revolution” has swept the U.S. and many other countries with the impending fear of global warming constantly looming. Activists have made many advances for cleaning up the environment and for enacting regulations to ensure cleaner manufacturing and energy production. Many of these movements have started on college campuses, centers of population for the young and enthusiastic. Despite their efforts, in the U.S. today, around 61 percent of the power generated comes from fossil fuels. Among these are coal, oil and natural gas. However, the Notre Dame Power Plant follows along those very lines for most of the power that supplies campus.
The aerospace and mechanical engineering programs recently toured the Notre Dame Power Plant, a fairly small facility. The plant has six turbines, two chillers and four reserve diesel engines, all of which are responsible for cooling, heating, lighting and powering the University. The plant generates about half of the 20 megawatts that the students and faculty use on average every day. The other half is bought from the city grid. While many engineers would find this technical information interesting, the tour also taught the program several things that no one on campus seems to understand about the policies of the energy production at Notre Dame.
While many decry the use of fossil fuels as harmful to the environment, they do not often understand the implications of trying to use other methods of power. Take South Bend for example. Some may ask, “Why don’t we simply use solar power? It’s clean and useful.” As it turns out, South Bend does not get very much sunshine each year, which would ensure that the costly returns on the solar cells savings would never pay for the units over their lifetime. Furthermore, if South Bend were a sunny place year round, it would take nearly 33 football fields covered in solar panels to produce the same amount of power as the Notre Dame Power Plant. And these panels only produce energy during the day. With no easy way to store this energy, those long Friday and Saturday nights would be spent doing homework by candlelight, not black lights.
You may also think, “South Quad is basically a giant wind tunnel, so what about wind power?” Unfortunately, the wind here does not blow consistently. Wind turbines usually need wind speed to be at a minimum 13 mph. Winds in South Bend only reach 11 mph on average. “How about nuclear power?” It is arguably the best idea, due to its efficiency and how unbelievably “green” it is. With the power you use in your lifetime produced solely from nuclear power, you will generate less than a soda can of nuclear waste, but you will generate a Notre Dame Stadium full of carbon dioxide this year alone from coal. However, with events such as Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and the recent Fukushima disaster in Japan, no one wants to build a nuclear generator, and no one would even think about putting it close to a center of population like a city – or a University. New technology, like small modular nuclear reactors, similar to those used on nuclear submarines and naval battleships, may one day be a viable replacement for the power plant, but these are only in the preliminary stages of testing.
Thus, we’re left with fossil fuels, which are cheap, reliable, easy to use and always in supply. In a small plant where demand fluctuates, when students are in class versus when they are in the dorms, fossil fuels are the perfect way to provide the power they need. And with all the scrubbers, cleaning agents and treatment, the smoke that comes out of the plant isn’t all that dirty. It is important, however, to note that fossil fuels won’t last forever. They are an unrenewable resource and many estimates mark their complete exhaustion around 50 years from now. This is why development of alternative and effective energy sources is so important in society today.
Now, you might be wondering, “Since there’s not much that can be done on the type of production, what can be done to cut emissions and make Notre Dame a greener place?” The answer is one you already know. The power plant is a demand-based plant, which simply means they produce as much as we use, no more, no less. If you leave your lights on when you go to class, that’s more wattage being used, which is more coal that goes into the boiler. If you unplug that lamp, that’s another hunk of coal that doesn’t get burned, and that’s more carbon dioxide that doesn’t get sent up to the ozone layer. So if you want “to be the change you wish to see in the world,” be sure to take the time to unplug. This way you will save some energy and help out the environment. And be sure to check out the booths at Energy Week next year.

Austin Lagomarsino is a sophomore and can be reached at alagomar@nd.edu. Dan Reitz is a sophomore and can be reached at dreitz@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.