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Students Chain Selves to UW Power Plant Calling for Decarbonization by 2035

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Edited by Kenneth Tran

In collaboration with South Seattle Emerald

Climate justice protesters march and chant toward the campus power plant on May 19, 2023 (Photo/Grant Vu)

On Friday, May 19, a coalition of climate justice student activists, local community organizations, and student groups gathered at the University of Washington (UW) campus to call on the university — specifically UW President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost Mark Richards — to make a written commitment to a “95% by 2035” decarbonization goal in the campus’ direct energy portfolio and to use construction as an opportunity to increase campus accessibility. The protest included a march and speeches, followed by students chaining themselves to the perimeter of the UW Power Plant. According to UW Sustainability and UW Facilities articles, 93% of campus emissions derive from the methane gas plant, which produces steam to heat and cool the university’s buildings.

“The campus actually doesn’t get most of its electricity from fossil fuel; it gets pretty much all of its electricity from Seattle City Light, which uses things like hydropower [and] wind consults,” said Brett Anton, an organizer for Institutional Climate Action (ICA), the student group leading the decarbonization protest and general campaign.

Protesters of the ICA chained to the power plant as a handmade sign hung over the fence on May 19, 2023. (Photo/Grant Vu)

Anton explains that the UW plans to replace its underground piping system, which runs on steam produced by burning methane gas, with a hot and chilled water piping system.

“Our plans include replacing our natural gas-fired boilers in our power plant that produce steam with electrically consuming district-scale heat pumps that will produce hot water from low-grade heat sources,” said David Woodson, the executive director of campus energy, utilities, and operations for UW Facilities. Woodson oversaw a similar energy transition at the University of British Columbia.

The step is part of UW’s five-phase Energy Transformation Strategy, which includes broader energy-efficiency improvements, central cooling, and installing heat pumps in buildings, which will bring the campus to 80% decarbonization by 2035.

With the current plan, UW will not fully decarbonize until 2050. Members of the student body want the university to move faster.

The Demands

In its letter to the UW administration, ICA calls the 2050 goal a delayed response that would “[put] at risk its democratic legitimacy, our communities, and the ecosystems from which we draw our very life.” According to Stanford University methane research, methane emitted into the atmosphere is “80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of warming the climate system.” Air pollution from the release of methane gas can result in increased cardiovascular diseases, contaminate drinking water sources, and affect local ecosystems and communities through the location and construction of gas operation sites, particularly against the sovereignty of Indigenous nations. The UW contributes to this with its power plant that depends on regional methane gas infrastructure, which is 16th most polluting power plant in Washington.

In 2021 alone, the UW emitted 89,624 tons of greenhouse gas emissions through the power plant. Currently, the university pays more than $9 million in purchasing methane gas, and due to Washington’s Climate Commitment Act, it will pay an additional $4 million per year in carbon allowances and fines, increasing to $15 million by 2029. Alternative decarbonization projects in the UW's plan would cost the university a large initial investment, but would relieve methane gas costs and fines in favor of the city's electricity costs.

“We do think the university is going to adopt some form of a decarbonization plan now [and] it seems to be a higher priority to them,” said Anton. “But, is it something where they wait until 2050? Or is it something where they act hard and fast [on]?”

ICA is not alone in its demands. While the protest pushed for the UW to transition away from its power plant, it’s also a unification of organizations representing varying identities and experiences with similar goals. Frances Yih, a member of ICA, explains that this in-depth involvement with other organizations is needed, despite their difference in focuses, with an overall goal of creating direct action to save the planet.

“Working with other groups includes attending their [own events], actions, and having them speak at our [events],” said Yih. “Things like this [are] often helpful in terms of understanding what other groups are advocating for.”

ICA’s letter received endorsements from Mason County Climate Justice (MCCJ), AnakBayan UW, Resist U.S.-Led War, and 350 Seattle, among other community and UW student organizations, which joined ICA’s call for a “95% by 2035” decarbonization goal and attended and spoke at the May 19 march.

MCCJ is a “BIPOC-led environmental conservation organization” within Mason County that endorses and supports the ICA in its demands. Despite residing across the Puget Sound from the UW, it found similarities in ICA’s goal.

Julianne Gale, the co-founder of Mason County Climate Justice (MCCJ), addresses the crowd of protesters gathered at UW’s Red Square on May 19, 2023. (Photo/Grant Vu)

“If we want to end the climate crisis and we want to create a livable future for everybody, we have to end all forms of extractions,” said Julianne Gale, a march speaker and co-founder of Mason County Climate Justice (MCCJ). “And, of course, that includes fossil fuel extraction. But it also includes timber extraction.”

Gale explains that, just as the UW has ties to fossil fuel extraction, the UW also has ties to deforestation and timber extraction. UW’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences hosts a research facility on campus called the Center for International Trade in Forest Products (CINTRAFOR), which Gale calls out for greenwashing. MCCJ argues that CINTRAFOR creates false climate science to promote timber industry profit at the expense of rural communities and UW students. One of MCCJ’s goals is to end industry co-optation of public universities.

“The solutions that we’re fighting for are more nuanced and holistic if we’re working together, because the things you face as UW students and the things I face as a 37-year-old in Mason County, some of them are exactly the same, and some of them are different,” said Gale.

Ari Flawau, a UW student and member of AnakBayan UW, arrived at the protest to learn more about the ICA’s demands and how she could support the environmental justice organization in creating resourceful climate solutions for the campus.

Originally, Flawau found herself frustrated seeing the systemic inaction around the climate crisis regarding the environmental degradation of her homeland, the Philippines. She would even switch her major from environmental engineering to American ethnic studies to continue educating herself.

“The struggles that [have] been going on back home and abroad [are] not distant,” said Flawau. “It’s way more connected than we think it is, and it’s way more local than we think it is. So, [as] students, we [have] to take a stand in calling it out.”

The struggles Flawau describes include not only the downgrade in environmental resources for indigenous communities within the Philippines but also Boeing’s role as a war contractor for the Filipino government. Therefore, the endorsement from the Seattle chapter of Resist U.S.-Led War, the “anti-war and pro-peace” organization, also drew Flawau to the protest by connecting the issues of climate and imperialism.

Resist U.S.-Led War demands the UW cut ties with Boeing due to the aircraft company’s defense contracting connection to the U.S. Department of Defense, which it criticizes as the “largest single institutional source of greenhouse gasses in the world.”

“We’re trying to expose and oppose war profiteers,” said Victor Simoes, a member of Resist U.S.-Led War Seattle. “Boeing, as the third largest transnational weapons corporation, profits from war, and the U.S. military [is] single-handedly [the] biggest polluter than most countries in the world. Our struggles are intrinsically connected.” (Disclosure: Victor Simoes is a contributing Community, Arts & Culture reporter for the Emerald but did not contribute to the reporting of this article.)

In 2022, the UW received a $10 million donation from Boeing, contributing to its $90 million building project for the Interdisciplinary Engineering Building, which will give Boeing naming rights for the building’s second floor.

In a tense moment after members of Resist U.S.-Led War finished their speeches, the sound of a ferocious engine rippled through the street as a lone motorcycle purposefully raced toward the crowd, ignoring the volunteers and traffic cones that protected protesters from incoming traffic, until John Bito, a member of 350 Seattle, rushed to put himself between the crowd and the motorcyclist, preventing a possibly horrifying collision.

350 Seattle, a nonprofit grassroots climate justice organization outside of UW, assisted ICA in organizing safety measures, like a bike brigade, peacekeepers, and a police liaison, and offered supplies for the multi-day action.

John Bito, a member of 350 Seattle and march peacekeeper volunteer, protects protesters from an enraged motorcyclist on May 19, 2023. (Photo/Grant Vu).

The Chaining

Organizers quickly regrouped and safely led protesters through the remaining route to the UW Power Plant. Thunderous chants from the crowd echoed against the humming of the UW’s colossal power plant machine as other protesters began to chain themselves to its perimeter.

Accompanied by half-a-dozen other members of ICA, Amber Pesce climbed over the fence and onto the plant’s smokestack with a bright blue chain in one hand and a letter of ICA demands in another. Pesce restated the ICA’s demands for decarbonizing the power plant 95% by 2035 before chaining themselves to the plant’s perimeter, declaring the group’s intention to stay until the UW commits to the goal.

Amber Pesce, a member of ICA, reads their letter to the UW Administration while protesters chain themselves to the UW Power Plant on May 19, 2023. (Photo/Grant Vu)

Victor Balta, a spokesperson of UW, states that the University respects and appreciates the students protesting, but the UW cannot commit to the demands without clear expectations and a fully detailed plan.

“Costs could reach up to $800 million to $900 million to replace the steam power plant and take on additional sustainability projects that have long been under discussion. We need to determine a realistic timeframe, but we are committed to reaching this goal as quickly as we can,” said Balta. “The costs associated with this work will require significant state and/or federal financial support to implement.”

The night of the initial chaining, UW Police arrived at the power plant to persuade protestors to move outside of the fence, but the group refused. According to Anton, they were not arrested. Over the weekend, UW President Cauce visited the group multiple times and scheduled a meeting to discuss demands.

He continued, “President Cauce committed to arranging for briefings and gathering information over the next several months to put us in a position to make a more formal commitment to decarbonization with specific timelines that we believe are feasible by the time the Board of Regents meets in November."

Until then, UW Sustainability and members of the UW Faculty Council, who participate in the university’s decarbonization strategy, are working to propose plans with the 2035 goal, similar to student demands.

“Eliminating 95% of [emissions] by 2035 should be possible for the UW,” says Jan Wittington, the co-chair of UW’s Faculty Council on Planning and Stewardship. “A lot can happen in 12 years; bigger engineering and policy programs than this have been achieved in that timeframe.”

ICA members chained to the steps outside of Suzzallo Library on May 22, 2023. (Photo/Kenneth Tran)

By May 22, protestors moved from the power plant and chained themselves to the steps of the Suzzallo Library for greater visibility and community engagement. After 5 days chained to campus, ICA concluded its action on May 23 with a rally.

From its statement, ICA intends to continue organizing and “working on building political will for the 2035 plan within the UW community and opening pathways towards securing legislative funds.”

Ultimately, the timeline for UW’s campus decarbonization plan is up to the UW’s administrative body — President Cauce and the Board of Regents.

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